Take local politics out of paying DA's

Oregon should set full salaries for district attorneys, as it does for judges, and the state, not counties, should pay them.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007
The Oregonian

I t always was just a matter of time before outspoken and aggressive Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis rubbed other local elected officials the wrong way.

Last month, for reasons no one seems willing or able to fully explain, Clatsop County commissioners voted 4-1 to eliminate the county's share of Marquis' salary, abruptly docking the DA of 15 percent of his pay, or $13,500 a year. Marquis' $79,000 annual salary is now less than his chief deputy's.

Marquis says the commissioners lopped off his county supplement as political payback after his wife, Cindy Price, ran against Commissioner Richard Lee in the past election. The four commissioners who slashed Marquis' salary (Lee voted no) offered various justifications, but it's clear they have personal and political differences with Marquis.

You'd like to think the top law enforcement officer in every Oregon county would have some protection from petty politics. But Oregon is operating with an archaic system that supposes a combination of state and local pay for district attorneys. The state pays a base salary of $94,332 for DAs in the nine counties of more than 100,000 people, and $79,512 for the DAs in the 27 less-populated counties. Most of the counties provide pay supplements, ranging from a few thousand dollars a year to up to $47,000 a year in Multnomah County.

There's a problem here that goes beyond Marquis' dust-up with the Clatsop commissioners. Many of Oregon's smaller, poorer counties, especially those that temporarily lost their federal timber payments, have cut their DA pay supplements. That's led to a growing number of inequities in district attorney pay. As The Oregonian's Lori Tobias reported, because Coos County DA Paul Burgett does not get a supplement, he makes about $17,000 a year less than the Crook County district attorney, even though Burgett oversees law enforcement in a county with nearly three times the population of Crook County.

That's not fair. More important, the county supplements have the effect of turning district attorneys into county supplicants -- more vulnerable than they should be to the political whims and wishes of the other local officials who have a say over their salaries.

The next Legislature ought to set equitable district attorney salaries around the state, and it should fully fund them, eliminating all county supplements. That's the way Oregon pays its judges. It's not a perfect system -- Oregon's judicial salaries themselves are too low, and county commissioners could still play politics with the office budgets of district attorneys.

But it would be better than the current system, which has led not just to the spectacle in Clatsop County, but to glaring inequities in district attorney pay across the state.

©2007 The Oregonian