March 11th, 2010 5:33 pm | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Politics, Multnomah County

County Scrambles to Fill Wheeler's Void

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While the Multnomah County board of commissioners this morning wades through Ted Wheeler's last meeting as county chair, the commissioners' staff members are scrambling behind the scenes to figure out how to fill the void after Wheeler is sworn in at noon as Oregon's state treasurer.

All this comes in the aftermath of Tuesday's political pile-on of candidates filing to fill Wheeler's seat and that of county Commissioner Jeff Cogen after Gov. Ted Kulongoski announced his appointment of Wheeler as treasurer, and Cogen announced his run for Wheeler's seat as county chairman.

That leaves county staffers to face their own set of puzzles and time pressures as they figure out how to keep the county moving.

Wheeler's departure couldn't have come at a worse moment for the county. The chair's office this week should be starting the most difficult and complex project of the year — compiling the annual budget. The county has faced painful budget cuts for the last decade, and by all indications this year will be no different.

Last Friday was the deadline for county departments to submit their programs to the chair's office for funding in the 2010-2011 budget. But instead of beginning to sort through those programs to release an executive budget in mid-April, Wheeler is preparing to report to work at his new job in Salem.

Staffers for the county commissioners tell WW in off-the-record conversations they need someone with up-to-the-minute knowledge to steer the budget process. Wheeler's chief operating officer, Jana McLellan, has that know-how and will take over as county chair at noon when Wheeler is sworn in as treasurer.

The county charter directs the board to choose someone to fill Wheeler's seat for the remainder of his term, but it lays out no timeline for doing so. And staffers and commissioners for now are still uncertain who that person should be.

One option would be to keep McLellan on, but there is uncertainty about whether she would be willing to take on the job for that long.

Another choice is to appoint Cogen as chair for the remainder of the term. He's been on the board longer than any other current commissioner and has the inside knowledge to write a budget. But with Cogen angling for the chair's job in the election, appointing him now would have the appearance of political kingmaking.

Appointing Cogen chair would also set off the same process to fill his commissioner seat. Cogen's designated interim is his chief of staff, Marissa Madrigal. Possibilities for people to fill the seat for the rest of the year could include Cogen's advisor Karol Collymore, who filed on Tuesday to run for his seat in the election. But that also has the appearance of a political coronation.

Another option would be to appoint someone else from District 2 (North/Northeast Portland) with inside knowledge of the county to fill Cogen's seat. Possibilities include former county staffers Bill Farver and Barbara Willer.

Left in the middle of all this is Wheeler's 10-member staff, whose futures now appear uncertain. Wheeler spokesman Rhys Scholes this morning declined comment on whether they expect to keep their jobs. If Cogen moves to the chair's office, it's expected he would take his three-member staff with him.
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