The word “county” is from the Middle English word conte, meaning the office of a count. However, a county within the United States, defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “the largest territorial division for local government within a state,” is based on the Anglo-Saxon shire, which corresponds to the modern county. Counties were brought to the United States by the English colonists and were established in the central and western parts of the United States by the pioneers as they moved westward.
Early county governments in Oregon were very limited in the services they provided. Their primary responsibilities were forest and farm-to-market roads, law enforcement, courts, care for the needy and tax collections. In response to demands of a growing population and a more complex society, today’s counties provide a wide range of important public services, including, public health, mental health, juvenile services, criminal prosecution, hospitals, nursing homes, airports, parks, libraries, land-use planning, building regulations, refuse disposal, elections, air pollution control, veterans services, economic development, urban renewal, public housing, vector control, county fairs, museums, dog control, civil defense and senior services.
Originally, counties functioned almost exclusively as agents of the state government. Their every activity had to be either authorized or mandated by state law. However, in 1958, an amendment to the Oregon Constitution authorized counties to adopt “home rule” charters, and a 1973 state law granted all counties power to exercise broad “home rule” authority. As a result, the national Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations has identified county government in Oregon as having the highest degree of local discretionary authority of any state in the nation.
Nine counties have adopted “home rule” charters, wherein voters have the power to adopt and amend their own county government organization. Lane and Washington were the first to adopt “home rule” in 1962, followed by Hood River (1964), Multnomah (1967), Benton (1972), Jackson (1978), Josephine (1980), Clatsop (1988) and Umatilla (1993).
Twenty-eight of Oregon’s 36 counties, including the nine with charters, are governed by a board of commissioners comprised of three to five elected members. The remaining eight less populated counties are governed by a “county court” consisting of a county judge and two commissioners.