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Board of County Commissioners records

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: multco008

Scope and Contents

Records of the Board of County Commissioners.


  • Creation: 1855-2009


Biographical or Historical Information

Administrative History: Board of County Commissioners/Clerk of the Board

1854 – 1859; Territorial County Commissioners

Although Portland’s city government had existed in the area which comprises Multnomah County since 1851, residents had to travel to Hillsboro, the seat of Washington County, in order to conduct court business. Residents desired a new county with Portland as its seat. The territorial legislature obliged and Multnomah County was created, with generally the same boundaries as today, on December 22, 1854. The act creating Multnomah County also created a set of officials to govern it; including James Bybee, George Vaughn, and Ensley Scott; who were to hold office as county commissioners until elections could be held. The first meeting of the county commissioners was held on January 17, 1855. The commissioners met quarterly in rented quarters on SW Front Avenue. The first election for county commissioners was held on June 9, 1855 and three new commissioners were elected.

The same legislation that formed the Multnomah County commission also appointed an auditor to serve as clerk to the commission and as recorder of conveyances.

1859 – 1913; County Court

The Oregon Constitution specified a change in the structure of the county commissioners. It created a County Court, consisting of the county judge and two elected commissioners, which had jurisdiction in all county administrative matters. The county court exercised no judicial or legislative powers.

The court met on the first Monday in April, July, September, and December until 1901 when meetings were called subject to the call of the county judge. This practice was changed by a 1911 law requiring meetings on the first Wednesday of each month.

In 1899, the county court and the county school superintendent combined to form a school district boundary board. In 1905, the county health board was created, with the board of commissioners serving as ex officio members, to work under the direction of the newly created (1903) state board of health and to enforce the latter’s rules and regulations in the county. Various laws allowed the county court to appoint a variety of agricultural officers, including livestock inspector (1893), veterinarian (1912), and fruit inspector (1906).  In 1911, the commissioners began serving as ex officio members of the board of the Library Association of Portland.

Many of the duties overseen by the county commissioners date from statehood, including: responsibility for erecting and maintaining county buildings; responsibility for erecting a courthouse, jail, and county hospital; responsibility for housing and equipping all county offices; responsibility for general care and management of county property; responsibility to provide and maintain public cemeteries and parks; authority to establish and maintain county roads and bridges; authority to license ferries and fix their rates; authority to license dance halls, grocery stores, bowling alleys, saloons, and public shows outside of incorporated city limits; authority to issue marriage and dog licenses; authority to levy taxes and authorize expenditures via the county budget process; authority to call for special elections to allow the commission to issue bonds.

The constitution also abolished the office of county auditor and transferred its duties to the county clerk. The clerk served as the custodian of the county’s records and archives as well as recorder of all conveyances. The clerk was elected in a county general election and served a two year term.  In 1870, the clerk was made an ex officio member of the board of equalization. In 1887, the legislature abolished the office of county clerk in Multnomah County and replaced it with the offices of clerk of the circuit court, clerk of the county court, and recorder of conveyances. In 1901, the court clerks were reconsolidated into the clerk of the county court, commonly known as the county clerk, and a separate office of county recorder was created.

1913 – 1966; Board of County Commissioners

In 1913, the legislature, using the alternative method provided for in the Oregon Constitution, abolished the office of county judge, transferred its probate powers to the circuit court, and created a third commissioner to complete the three person board. The board acted solely in an administrative manner and had neither judicial nor legislative authority. Most of the functions that the county court had performed were continued by the Board of County Commissioners without interruption.

Board members served for four year terms. Elections were offset, with two members selected at one election and the other member two years later. The board selected one of its members to act as chairman.

From 1913 until 1918, the board met as often as seemed necessary, not following any set rule. Beginning in 1918, the board decided to meet each Monday and Wednesday.

In 1929, the county adopted civil service regulations. Prior to this time the board had exercised its own discretion in personnel matters.

The legislature authorized more agricultural agents to be appointed by the commission, including dairy herd inspector (1926), Bang’s disease inspector (1939), agricultural agent (1916), club agent (1921), and home demonstration agent (1930). By the late 1930’s, the state Department of Agriculture was responsible for many of these activities.

In 1913, the board appointed an officer to act as county purchasing agent.

In 1919, the board was authorized to create dog control districts and to appoint the dog control board. The first dog control board was appointed in 1925.

Until 1933, the county court and the board of county commissioners had provided for  the care of indigents through a variety of ad hoc and often informal methods. In 1933, public welfare commissions were formed in each county, consisting in Multnomah County of the board and four appointed members. It was charged with coordinating care for the indigent.

The county commissioners (either as the county court or as the board) have always had the primary authority for the county’s fiscal affairs. The board had sole budget authority for the county until 1921, when the county budget committee was created . It included the board and three lay members.

The board also had the responsibility for levying taxes. From 1921 until 1939, the Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission (TSCC) operated as a regulatory board for the county tax levy process. After 1939 (and for a brief period in 1919-1921), the TSCC served only as an advisory board.

Beginning in 1914, the county clerk was responsible for registering voters, who were required to appear at the clerk’s office and furnish proof of eligibility. The clerk was responsible for maintaining records of eligible voters and elections and for providing ballots, poll books, and other election supplies.

In 1921, the term of office for county clerk was changed to four years.

When Prohibition was enacted in, the board no longer issued saloon licenses. After prohibition was repealed, the board made recommendations to the State Liquor Control Commission regarding liquor licenses.

1967 – present; Multnomah County Commission

The voters of Multnomah County approved a home rule charter May 24, 1966 and it became effective on January 1, 1967. The charter provided for the creation of a full-time five-person commission headed by a county chairman, also known as the chief executive of the county. The commission positions were numbered 1 through 5, with the chairman being position 1. All positions were elected at general elections to serve four-year terms. Odd and even numbered positions were elected alternately every two years. The County Clerk was also eliminated as an elected official and most of the positions duties were transferred to administrative departments.

The biggest change in the function of county commission under home rule was the authority to take legislative action through the creation of county ordinances.

In 1968, the commission established administrative departments to operate county services and administer county affairs. The relationship of departments to the commission can be seen as policy creation (the board) and implementation (the departments).

Until 1976, commissioners were elected from districts at large. In 1976, voters amended the charter to create four separate districts. The Chair continued to be elected at large. From 1978 until 1984, the county experimented with a County Executive who was not a board member. This change was unpopular and voters returned to using a Board Chair in 1984. Since then, the Board’s composition and duties have remained constant. The following is from the Board’s website:

“The Chair is elected from the county at large, is the chief executive officer and personnel officer and administers all county programs except those under the elected Sheriff, Auditor, District Attorney and Commissioners. The Chair presides over Board meetings and votes. The Chair executes Board policies, contracts, bonds and other instruments, and prepares the executive budget for submission to the Board.

“The Chair and Commissioners are elected to four-year terms on non-partisan ballots. The Commissioners are elected from west, north, central and east geographic districts based on population as established by the Home Rule Charter. The Commissioners conduct all legislative activities of the County, adopt policies, sit as the budget committee, review and amend the executive budget, hold hearings, adopt the County budget; act as liaisons to departments, advisory boards and commissions, make changes in administrative departments; fill vacancies in elective offices and adopt labor agreements.”

Current information can be found at the Multnomah County Board of County Commissioners website.

Note written by Terry Baxter


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Language of Materials


Arrangement Note

Records are arranged in the series in which they were accessioned into the archives.

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Source of Acquisition

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Repository Details

Part of the Multnomah County Archives Repository

1620 SE 190th Avenue
Portland 97233 US
503.988.3754 (Fax)