The topic of personal aides for Clark County Commissioners isn’t new. In fact, I raised it myself when I first became a county commissioner in 1996.
I had my own assistant in the Legislature, and it seemed natural to have one at the county level. But if I had one, so should the other commissioners, and that was a healthy addition to the county budget. Then, and in subsequent discussions, the proposal always died on the vine because of the county’s financial challenges.
Now, there’s a new dimension. County Commissioner David Madore wants to pay his assistant out of his own pocket. Frankly, I don’t think the issue here is the person he wants to hire (his former campaign manager Anna Miller), or party partisanship. I think the issue is Madore’s hope to pay her from his own pocket; her resulting accountability (or lack of) to the public; and equity among the county commissioners.
The questions for me are: If privately paid, what is the employee’s accountability to the public? And what is the public’s liability for that employee? And should more wealthy elected officials have more staff than less wealthy elected officials?
Currently the commissioners share staff. One assistant manages all scheduling mail, phone messages, etc. for all three. There are two policy assistants: Kelly Sills and Axel Swanson. But they do not take direction from a single commissioner. In order for either to take on an assignment, two commissioners must agree. And their task truly is policy research, not administrative assistance. Either can do any research Madore requests, as long as a second commissioner agrees. All three are supervised by County Administrator Bill Barron, not by the commissioners.
Procedurally, when the county creates a new position, the Human Resources office develops a job description, seeks applicants and refers the most qualified to whoever is doing the actual hiring. Then the applicant eventually is selected and his or her supervisor has a clear reference to what may be asked and required of them. And they are indemnified by the county against lawsuits should they inadvertently make a mistake or take action that damages others or the public in any way.
Would a privately paid employee who caused error or harm be similarly indemnified? I think not. And were they to cause harm, could the county be sued for their actions? I hope not. And could Madore be held personally liable because he pays that employee? I have no idea, but perhaps.
Then there are always the privacy issues swirling around the question of that particular employee’s access to whose records, his or her authority to make requests without approval of a second commissioner, as well as use of public facilities (spaces, computers and phones to name a few) for private purposes, which is prohibited in law and internal policy.
According to The Columbian’s article, Madore says he has a lot to do, and no doubt he does. I sure did. But his load is no heavier than the other two commissioners, or any commissioners that ever preceded him. Working a 60- or 70-hour week is not unusual for a county commissioner. Doing homework on a Sunday for an upcoming hearing or appeal on Tuesday isn’t unusual, either. That’s just the way it is.
Perhaps the answer to this problem of private pay for public staff is to bite the bullet and let each of the three county commissioners hire a part-time administrative assistant at public expense. Then all liability and accountability questions would be answered and all commissioners would be equitably staffed.
Betty Sue Morris of Felida is a former four-term state legislator and former three-term Clark County Commissioner.