The word “county” is from the Middle English word “conte.” It means the domain of a count. However, the American county, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is, “the largest territorial division for local government within a state of the U.S.” That definition is based on the Anglo-Saxon County of England dating back to the time of the Norman Conquest. Counties were brought to America by the colonists and were later established in the central and western parts of the nation by the colonizers as they moved westward.
Early Oregon county governments were 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 collection. 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. In 1858, that all changed. An amendment to the Oregon Constitution authorized counties to adopt “home rule” charters. A 1973 state law granted all counties power to exercise broad “home rule” authority. As a result, the national Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations 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-nine 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 seven less populated counties are governed by a “county court” consisting of a county judge and two commissioners.