Sprenger talks about new role as commissioner

LEBANON — New Linn County Commissioner Sherrie Sprenger told members of the Cascade Gateway Leadership program Thursday morning that being one of three voting members of a governmental body offers much more opportunity to create change than being one of 60 members of the Oregon House of Representatives.

A Lacomb area resident, Sprenger represented House District 17 for 12 years before running for the Board of Commissioners in November.

“I think we can make much more of an impact on issues at the county level,” Sprenger said during an hour-long program at the MDVA building in downtown Lebanon.

Sprenger said Commissioner Roger Nyquist, retired Commissioner Will Tucker and the late Commissioner John Lindsey, were responsible for operating Linn County in a unique way.

“I’ve been all over Oregon and I can tell you Linn County operates uniquely,” Sprenger said. “For example, most counties would never sue the state, but Linn County did and won the ($1 billion) breach of contract timber lawsuit.”

That lawsuit was heard in November 2019 in Linn County Circuit Court and is under appeal in the Oregon Supreme Court.

Sprenger said the county is also doing “many good things.”

She said the county has an outstanding parks system and few people know it does not rely on money from the General Fund. It operates on income generated by campsite fees, state RV licensing taxes, Marine Board funds and grants.

She said the county’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations program is going extremely well, with about 25,000 shots given so far.

And while some counties are charging people for the shots, Linn County is providing them free of charge.

Linn County also dispersed about $1.5 million in emergency funds to businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic. Many businesses received up to $10,000.

In some emergency cases, checks were cut in as little as one day.

“In my campaign for this position, I did not run on a platform that things needed fixing,” Sprenger said. “But I bring my own ideas and perspective to the board.”

Sprenger said opening communications channels with the public is a key priority for her.

The county recently created a communications officer position. That person will focus on developing press releases about Linn County programs and projects, help develop a new website and initiate a Facebook page and other social media outreaches.

“I also believe that our board meetings should be live-streamed,” Sprenger said. “When I was in the Legislature, at first, I was worried about having a camera on me. After a while, you just up your game and move on. Many communities are live-streaming their meetings and we should too.”

Sprenger said that currently the public can call in and listen to the board meetings by phone.

Sprenger wants to see mill sites in Lebanon and Sweet Home that are now owned by the county due to tax foreclosures, sold to private individuals so they can be put back on the tax rolls.

“We have developers calling about the Sweet Home mill already,” Sprenger said.

The county took over the 160-acre former Willamette Industries mill site 11 years ago in lieu of $500,000 in unpaid property taxes.

Sprenger said she has spent a lot of time in the north canyon area that was devastated by wildfires in September.

She said many homes and businesses were destroyed by the massive fires that started in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area and near Madras in Central Oregon. The fires met near Gates and Detroit due to 60-mile-per-hour east winds.

Sprenger said she believes the U.S. Forest Service should have put in smoke jumpers to extinguish the Opal Creek fire, when it was just 5 or 10 acres.

When the two fires married up, they totaled more than 400,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, as well as thousands of acres of public and private timber lands.

Sprenger said about 80% of homes and businesses in Detroit were destroyed and a substantial number of homes and businesses in Gates are gone.

“In some places, there is total devastation,” Sprenger said. “Homes are reduced to ash. I spoke with a Marion County deputy who told me he drove through 25 miles of flames.”

She also told about a man who survived the fire because he crawled onto a rock in the North Santiam River and used a lawn chair to block burning embers from hitting him.

Sprenger said that although Oregonians can’t force the federal government to change the way its forests are managed, local residents can help themselves by creating defensible space around their homes.

Remove trees and brush near their buildings, keep their yards picked up and especially important, keep their home’s roof clean and gutters free of fir and pine needles.

“It’s all about how burning embers are blown around and where they land,” Sprenger said.

Sprenger said the county cannot control when public schools allow students back into classrooms, but she supports getting kids back as soon as parents feel comfortable.

She has spoken with several parents whose children are experiencing health issues due to the lack of socialization and being schooled in front of a computer screen.

She said many private schools did not shut down due to the pandemic and there have not been any major outbreaks.

“I’m worried about what the educational costs are going to be for our children in five years,” Sprenger said. “Has the cure caused more damage than the disease?”

Sprenger said she and Nyquist will soon select someone to serve the remaining two years on Lindsey’s position.

She said the Precinct Committee People of the Linn County Republican Party will meet on March 28 to review resumes of prospective commissioners.

The group will winnow the list — about 15 to 20 so far — to five candidates and the commissioners will select one person.

If the commissioners cannot agree, the selection process goes to Gov. Kate Brown. Sprenger said she is committed to making the decision locally.

Sprenger serves as a liaison to the parks and museums, planning and building, assessment and taxation, justice courts, surveyor and sheriff’s office.

She represents the board on the Oregon Council of Governments, Council of Forest Trust Land Counties, Extension Task Force, Linn County Code Enforcement and the Mid-Willamette Job Council.

At the state level, she serves on the Oregon County Parks Assistance Advisory Committee and at the federal level, the Northwest Oregon RAC and Hood-Willamette RAC.