Shagay Jones looks at the inscription on a tombstone at the Owyhee Cemetery between Nyssa and Adrian last week. Jones is one of three members of the Owyhee Cementer Board. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Jeremy Chamberlain stepped onto the Vale Rural Fire Board because wanted to get involved in his community.

Someone wrote Elias Eiguren in for the Arock School District Board – and he won.

Dennis Buttice liked the care his mom received when she was a resident of Pioneer Place, so he decided to join the facility’s board.

Buttice, Chamberlain and Eiguren are among the local residents who are members of sometimes little-known elected boards that oversee everything from fire departments to cemeteries to school districts in remote areas of Malheur County. Their work occurs largely in the background but their role is a vital piece to the nuts and bolts of hometown democracy. Almost all of the people who serve on these obscure boards do so without pay.

While they all said they were proud of their service, the need for more people to step up to participate remains a lingering challenge.

The county lists 85 seats on governing boards up for election in May. The deadline to file to run is Tuesday, March 15.

These boards approve spending of public money and guide policy for services to be provided. Most meet once a month.

“We have a small community so sometimes it is hard to fill the five-person board. I’d like to see more people interested,” said Eiguren.

The school at Arock sits about halfway between Jordan Valley and Rome, but serves about 20 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

While secluded, the district faces the same challenges and achieves the same triumphs as other school districts across Oregon, said Eiguren.

Eiguren, a rancher, who has served on the Arock School Board for eight years, said he likes being engaged with education.

“Knowing on some level we have a little bit of say in what is happening in our kid’s lives is good,” said Eiguren.

Eiguren said when he joined the school board, he expected the local group to have more local authority.

“That’s not necessarily the case,” said Eiguren.

Shagay Jones believes her role on the three-person Owyhee Cemetery Board is about the community and her family.

“I have six generations in the cemetery and I live close by,” said Jones. “I want it taken care of.”

The cemetery is between Nyssa and Adrian.

Jones said she’s served 13 years on the board, which meets once a month, but took four years off before she decided to get back into the mix.

Jones said her time on the board has been a learning experience.

“I think it’s helped me understand different philosophies and to see more where people are coming from,” said Jones.

Jones said she believes service on such small boards is important.

“Everybody needs to pitch in and give some time to the community. If you can do that, it is a good idea,” said Jones.

Chamberlain said there is a “shortage of people who want to get involved.”

“There are not a lot of people who want to be on these boards. People are busy. So, there isn’t a huge push for someone else that is knocking on the door,” he said.

Chamberlain, a local farmer, said he decided to run for the Vale Rural Fire Board after he was approached by a local resident. He is now in his fifth year on the board.

“I think in this day and age in our society, everything is take, take, take. This is a way to give back to the community. It doesn’t take a lot of money or a lot of time,” said Chamberlain.

Buttice said he attains a sense of accomplishment as a member of the Pioneer Place board.

Buttice, who is now in his eighth year on the board, enjoys the work.

“I still have a passion to keep it like it was when my mom was there,” he said.

Jake Speelmon, a member of the Adrian School Board, has two daughters who graduated from the district and a third who’s a freshman at the high school.

He joined the board in November 2007, after barely a year of living in Adrian, after “some people wrote my name in” during the election.

“Everybody wants to lift where they stand and make things a little better for their community and for kids and this kind of service gives the opportunity for that,” Speelmon said. “My kids have been the beneficiary of a lot of good people and good service. I’d like to think that maybe I’ve helped a little.”

Speelmon said that while normally, the role of board member is rewarding, the past year of pandemic-related worries had drawn his attention to the limits of the role.

There were loud voices in Adrian demanding a return to in-person instruction long before the Oregon Health Authority would allow it, but the sympathetic school board found itself subordinated to state agencies and the governor’s office.

“The reason why we’re elected and not paid is that we have the best interest of kids at heart,” he said. “This last year’s been tough because I feel like I haven’t been heard. I don’t feel like the kids have really been considered in the scheme of things.”

To combat this feeling of powerlessness, Speelmon and the other board members sued the heads of the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to try to force a reopening. The suit was eventually abandoned when the state decided in December to open the schools.

Despite his occasional feelings of discouragement, Speelmon said that he would recommend running for school board to anyone.

“Your No. 1 motive has got to be the wellbeing and education of children, and if you have a desire to serve and that’s your motive, then I think you should definitely throw your hat in the ring,” he said.

Miles north of Speelmon in Ontario, Renae Corn has served on the local school board for 12 years. She rose to the position of board chair after Mike Blackaby resigned, but said that this will be her final term.

“When I ran for the board I wanted to offer a parent’s perspective on the board,” Corn said. “That has often been the lens I have used to look at the decision the board is being asked to make, what it will do to families.”

Corn said that while her position had afforded her “much personal growth,” and an appreciation for legal decision making, those considering a run for elected office shouldn’t take the responsibility lightly.

“It takes many hours of reading to be informed on issues. It is more than one meeting per month,” she said. “Often people are disgruntled with boards. In the end, we need good people who are willing to sacrifice for their friends and neighbors so that we can continue to have local elected representatives to help guide the direction of local affairs.”

Shelly Johnson is a member of the Fairview Cemetery Board in Ontario. She said that serving on boards runs in the family – her husband Todd Johnson is on several county boards as well. She only began her service four years ago, but has had plenty of work to do updating the books, which she says she inherited in disarray.

As for why she keeps at it, Johnson said, “There’s nobody else to do it. People just aren’t as community minded as they used to be, I guess. It’s hard to find people to replace people on these little boards out here.”

As such, she said, those who do decide to run for boards should consider they are doing something good.

“I would tell them that it’s good to be a part of our community and help with things like that, and there’s just not a lot of people that would do it, so if they were considering it, it would be noble or community minded, and it’s a good thing,” she said. 

YOU CAN SUPPORT THIS KIND OF WORK

The Enterprise relies on community support to fund vital local journalism. You can help us do more.

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription is $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.