Reaching Across the Aisle
A Tale of Two Commissioners
By Keegan Clements-Hauser
Commissioner Keith Heck knows his county has a problem.
“There’s this mystique of the old Americana: ‘We’ve got our guns and we’re gonna keep everyone off our land,’” Heck says. “It sounds good, and theoretically it does work — until someone really starts pushing it.”
Josephine County’s fondness for the idea of old Americana wasn’t always an issue. Hard-working people, rural development and a fierce independent streak used to be enough to carry the county through.
In the midst of collapsing timber industry revenue and resultant economic distress, that way of life translated into an unwillingness to pay taxes that are necessary to maintain sanitation, fire and police services and other essential county programs. The result is a county-wide inability to prosecute offenses, and a lack of timely sheriff response.
It’s the latter symptom that has garnered the most attention, both locally and nationally. In August 2012, a Cave Junction, Oregon woman called 9-1-1 to no avail and was sexually assaulted after her ex-boyfriend forced entry into her home. She was told by a Grants Pass dispatcher that no sheriff’s deputies were on duty to respond.
Despite events like this highlighting the lack of patrol response in the county, a property tax-funded public safety levy that would have helped prevent incidents like this was voted down in May, 2013, during in a special election. For Heck, this is where the rustic idealism starts to go awry. Heck points out that, despite neighborhood watch groups thinking they can hold their own, not everyone is necessarily armed and capable of taking care of themselves.
Professional staff in various county positions, some of which have been with the community for decades, are finding their positions cut or their opportunities for advancement vanishing. As a result, more and more of them are departing to find opportunities elsewhere, leading to a crisis of staffing felt across the county.
“I don’t think you need to be a genius … to figure out that we have a massive, growing problem with severe consequences,” Heck says.
He isn’t the only one in the county commissioners’ office who feels that way. According to Cherryl Walker, Josephine County Vice Commissioner, the county government has gone from about 700 employees to 270 in the course of three years. Her assessment of the situation created by a lack of timber and tax revenue is blunt.
“It resulted in us not having enough money to operate the county government,” she says. “Many of our departments are operating with just two people in them.”
Both Heck and Walker also agree that people will have to come to the realization that county government is an essential part of their lives. Heck is the more cynical of the two, believing that people might need to hit rock bottom before they learn, whereas Walker is hopeful that they can restore the county’s faith and cooperation through good policy-making and governance. Nevertheless, the two are on the same page when it comes to where the county is and where the county needs to go.
The two are perhaps an unlikely pair: Walker is a Democrat, while Heck is a Republican. In the current national political climate, that alone is an almost insurmountable divide. More than just a party affiliation separates them, however. By background, the two are worlds apart.
Walker spent much of her life heavily involved in women’s rights organizations, from Zonta International to the Bright Future Foundation. Heck spent much of his spreading the word of Jesus Christ, graduating from the Western Bible College with a B.A. in Pastoral Studies.
Heck, after a stint in the Marine Corps, spent 29 years as a pastor, served on the boards of religions non-profits such as the Gospel Rescue Mission, and even served as a director for Kansas-based Christian radio station KWBI-FM. Walker traveled the world, documenting living conditions and educational opportunities in Africa, and visiting Cuba to attend a medical conference.
Walker has held a number of government positions, from serving as a county supervisor for the United States Department of Agriculture to holding office as a Republican in the Oregon House of Representatives, before switching allegiance to the Democratic Party. Heck, in turn, has had no previous experience in the government sector, and agrees with many of the core tenets of the Tea Party.
No matter their differences, both agree raising taxes is essential to the safety and well-being of their community. They also both feel strongly that Josephine County will pull through, one way or another, and is still a place worth living.
“Josephine County is not a bunch of crazies,” Heck says, in protest of media portrayals to the contrary. “[A lot of things in the county] exist because people rallied together to meet a need.”
“We have some very dedicated and outstanding people who have taken on additional responsibilities,” Walker agrees. “We don’t have evil players in the county that are trying to destroy it … we have good people who are working very hard to turn the situation around.”
Many of our departments are operating with just two people in them.
[Old Americana] sounds good ... until someone really starts pushing it.
Commissioner Keith Heck
We don’t have evil players in the county that are trying to destroy it … we have good people who are working very hard to turn the situation around.”
© 2013-2014 School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon