Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

Logically, there’s no way Tammy Baney knows all 183,000 residents of Deschutes County. But watch the former county commissioner out in public somewhere, and it’s hard to believe in that logic.

Two days after Baney, 47, ended her final Deschutes County Commission meeting and one day after she started her new job leading the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, she was back in the front lobby of the county building where she worked for the past 12 years. Everyone who walked through the lobby over the course of an hourlong interview she did with The Bulletin on Friday waved, said hi, or, in the case of one elderly couple who came strolling through the revolving door around 11 a.m., stopped to tell Baney they voted for her and were sad to see her leave.

That’s a reflection on who Baney is, said Deschutes County Administrator Tom Anderson. Anderson has worked in Deschutes County government for 20 years, the past five as the top executive appointed by Baney and the rest of the commission.

“She’s just an extraordinarily nice person,” Anderson said. “Very easy laugh, very much aware of building relationships. Around here, she was just genuinely caring about everyone.”

Baney was 35 when she was elected in 2006, making her the youngest commissioner in the county’s history and the fifth woman elected to the County Commission. She was a longtime volunteer who served on the board of Habitat for Humanity, worked as a court-appointed special advocate for children and led the Deschutes County Commission on Children and Families. The County Commission seat was the first elected office she sought.

At the time, Baney said, she heard comments about how her place was in the home and questions about how she could work on the County Commission when she was a single mother. Her daughter, Addy, turned 7 the day Baney was sworn in.

“I heard things like, ‘Have you thought about starting with a homeowners association instead of as county commissioner?’” Baney said. “There was a part of me that was offended, but there was a part of me that didn’t let it persuade me not to truly go after what I wanted to do, which was effect change through the county.”

During her 12 years, Baney effected change not just in Deschutes County but statewide. She worked extensively on the modernization of public health care through coordinated care organizations, which create networks of care providers to serve people who receive coverage through Medicaid and focus on preventive services.

“One of the things that I’m most grateful for is being able to have led the state through the modernization of the public health system of the entire state,” Baney said. “That system really was broken and fragmented, and quite frankly our state was not prepared to handle a pandemic.”

She’ll continue serving on the Central Oregon Health Council and said she hoped to be involved in some way in ongoing work to modernize the state’s behavioral health system.

Locally, Deschutes County expanded services, particularly public health and mental health services, into La Pine and Sisters and enhanced the services it offered in Redmond during Baney’s terms.

“Access to services is a barrier for many,” she said. “We need to get to them, not expect everyone to come into Bend, so it was important to me and to the county to get those services into the community.”

Those expanded services, along with a jail expansion completed in 2014, were provided without any additional costs to taxpayers in the form of a general obligation bond, Baney said.

When she took office in 2007, three years had passed since voters approved Measure 37, which gave property owners the right to develop their land according to regulations in place when they bought it rather than current laws. Local governments had to either waive land use laws for property owners who filed Measure 37 claims or compensate them for the lost value from blocked development.

In 2007, voters passed Measure 49, which rolled back Measure 37. However, claims filed in the intervening three years had to be honored, and Deschutes County had more than 170 of those claims. The last wasn’t settled until 2013.

“I had two commissioners who couldn’t agree on the time of day, so it made me the swing vote on a lot of decisions,” Baney said.

At the same time, Deschutes County was aware of a national downturn that hadn’t hit Central Oregon yet but inevitably would. The recession didn’t really hit Deschutes County until 2009, Baney said, but it was something commissioners could see coming as they tried to handle the deluge of land use applications related to Measure 37.

“We were last into the recession and last out,” she said. “It was devastating on a personal and professional level in that our suicide rates were high. Families that had been giving to nonprofits were now needing to receive services. I received heart-wrenching phone calls about people losing their homes.”

The recession did have silver linings for Deschutes County, Baney said. With fewer development applications coming in, the county invested more in long-range planning and setting a vision for development in Deschutes County. And the city of Bend, Bend-La Pine Schools and the Bend Park & Recreation District pulled together to share services where they could.

Deschutes County’s reserve funds are in a better place now to weather another recession, Baney said. But as she leaves office, she still sees challenges ahead.

The urban-rural divide in Oregon seems to be growing, Baney said, but Deschutes County can be a leader in bridging that gap. The county also has a choice in how it approaches conflict with the state, she said.

“If we don’t like a state law, we have to change the law and that doesn’t happen by just getting angry and frustrated,” Baney said. “It will take time. It will be far more time than anyone expects or wants to commit, but it’s worth it and we’ve watched how that will happen.”

Commissioner Tony DeBone, who worked alongside Baney for eight years, said it had been an honor to work with her.

“We were able to work side by side from day one with comfort and ease making decisions,” he said. “Her dedication to public service has always amazed me.”

Perhaps no one sees more of what the County Commission does than Sharon Keith, the commission’s executive assistant who sits quietly taking notes in the corner of every meeting. Keith, who moved to Deschutes County in 2014 after working in northern Minnesota, said she’s seen many elected officials come and go but Baney was one of the hardest to say goodbye to.

Baney consistently did her homework, Keith said, but more than that, she was like a ray of sunshine walking around the county building with her bright-yellow smiley face mug.

“Not only did you know that she felt that way herself, when she would walk around with it or go into a meeting, you felt happy too,” Keith said.

Baney said she hoped to see Deschutes County leaders continue to stay engaged with statewide conversations and allow county staff to continue to be involved in health services reform and land use policy. The county’s community development team is frequently tapped to speak in Salem because they’re experts, she said.

Baney has long been involved at the state level, with frequent trips to Salem. She served for eight years on the state’s Housing Stability Council before her second term ended in June. She’s still the chairwoman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, where she was able to be a voice for Central Oregon as well as set transportation policy statewide.

She said she’s worried that local, state and federal government appears to be becoming increasingly partisan. Baney, a Republican who enjoyed widespread support from Democrats as well, lost her 2018 primary race to Patti Adair, the chairwoman of the county’s Republican Party.

Early in her first term, Baney said, she was told that she should consider her chances of re-election before voting on issues. She disagreed, and she said she’s long believed in serving people over party.

“There has yet to be an issue that has come before me as a commissioner where I’ve considered whether that was a liberal or a conservative type of issue,” she said. “It’s about people, about a need and about service.”

Baney said she hasn’t ruled out a future return to elected office. Right now, she’s focused on her new role at the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council. There, she’ll lead an agency that provides regional transportation services, alternative high school education, job training and small-business loans in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

“It feels just meant to be,” she said. “Twelve years in elected office is a long time, and I feel just elated that I’m with an organization that has so much in front of it and such great people to provide such important work.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com