Kelley Minty Morris: Get to know the "nerds"

I am sure you care deeply about your community and our state. Channel that care into digging into what makes your community work and into getting to know the people that keep the wheels turning.

Recently referred to as "the least political person in politics,” Kelley serves as a non-partisan, elected Klamath County Commissioner.

Pop Quiz!

  1. Who serves on your local sanitation board?

  2. Name a member of the school board.

If you knew even one name, I am impressed! Find yourself a gold star!

Ahh, elections, the worst kinds of popularity contests. The “cool kids” running for the highest offices get all the attention. At the federal level, everyone intimately pays attention to every detail of the race to the White House. At the state level, people gossip about the race for governor; they may even get to know the candidates so well that once one wins, they feel comfortable referring to him or her by their first name. 

Elections, where the “nerds” who do the in-the-weeds work for the aforementioned “cool kids” tend to be ignored. Take County Commissioners, for instance. They’re called on to solve everything from land disputes between neighbors, to finding funding for law enforcement, to COVID 19 reopening plans, and everything in between. These officials and other candidates for “down ballot” races rarely draw as much attention as those vying for president and governor. Even among those who take the time to vote, some simply skip these “secondary” races because they have no clue who is actually running. This depressing reality is true even here in Oregon—a state that prides itself on voter participation.

Consider that in the recent election, the total numbers of votes cast in Klamath County for president was about 37,000. Comparatively, a sample down the ballot race—Director of South Suburban Sanitary District—drew just 2,368 votes out of the almost 13,000 people who were eligible in 2019. Of those who did vote, 1,647 votes were cast for the single candidate, 721 left the race blank.

Similarly, the race for Zone 1 Director of the Klamath County School Board had 30,559 eligible voters…but of the 6,566 accepted ballots, just 4,508 votes were cast for a candidate (of which there were several) and 2,058 opted to leave the race blank.

There’s a paradox at play here: voters pay attention to the races that tend to have the lowest impact on their day-to-day experiences.

It is time for the revenge of the nerds. Let’s flip the script during the next election and make sure that those vying to do our dirty work get the introduction to voters they deserve. After all, you should know who these people are—they can make your life a lot better (or worse).

Two short stories exemplify why down ballots races should be top of mind for Oregon’s voters.

First: Recently the South Suburban Sanitation District applied for a planning exception from Klamath County for land applying Class B treated water on some property zoned Exclusive Farm Use. This type of land application is a permitted use, with approval by the County because of the zoning. Now, by the time this issue gets to the County it has very little authority because this is simply an issue of “did the requesting party meet the planning requirements?”. 

Neighbors in the area detest the proposal (and have come up with some creative expressions to refer to it as, I’m sure you get the drift). They argue that putting a sewage line near their idyllic farm houses and pastures isn’t aligned with the intention of the land code. The County denied the application. Then, the Sanitation District appealed the decision to the Land Use Board (LUBA) and that’s where it rests, as of today. 

You may be wondering why such a proposal is even being considered, given that the public is so opposed. And, that’s exactly why down ballot races matter! The three elected Sanitation Board members and the director of the District brought this proposal forward. In other words, three elected officials are pursuing this, and yet “the public” seems overwhelmingly against it. As I’ve explained to dozens of people who’ve written the Commissioners to express their frustration, the elected officials with the ability to scrap or change the proposal are the Sanitation Board members, who are, like Commissioners, elected. The response I’ve mostly gotten is something like, “Say what?” People don’t realize they are governed by a Board, and not the County, and that those people are there to serve them. It’s been a frustrating learning curve for many.

Second: As a County Commissioner, I’ve had a lot of constituents who want me to wave a wand and “make the schools reopen.” I’ve repeatedly explained schools are governed by school boards, school boards are made up of elected members, and asked if people have reached out to their school board representative. I have mostly gotten feedback that people had no idea those positions were influential and had no idea who they voted for or if they even voted.

Your vote matters, especially for local races.

Like me, I am sure you care deeply about your community and our state. Channel that care into digging into what makes your community work and into getting to know the people that keep the wheels turning.

  • Consider getting involved in some of the impactful boards that are not as high profile or garner as much attention as the big popularity contests.

  • Don’t want to serve directly? Get involved in the campaign of someone you believe in who does.

  • Attend the public meetings.

  • Make sure your friends and neighbors know what is going on. 

  • Become the “expert” on your local officials in a way that you cannot stop talking about who your friends should consider voting for next election.

I hope I have effectively argued why you should pay attention to Sanitation Districts and School Boards, and, one last thing, don’t even get me started on Road Districts. You have never seen contention, ala an episode of Judge Judy, until you have tried to mediate a disagreement on a three-person road district.

Local elections matter. Dive in.


Reach out to Kelley:

@commissionerkelleymintymorris on Facebook

@Kelleymmorris on Twitter

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