County Government

There are three (3) forms of county governments in Oregon: County Courts, County Commission, and Home Rule Counties.

Home Rule Charters were authorized by the legislature in 1958 and is the most independent structure. The following charts show counties by governing structure and its move towards a Home Rule form of governing.

7 County Court counties

No Action Charter Committee – No Vote Voters Rejected Charter
Crook Gilliam Grant
Harney Wheeler Sherman

20 County Commission counties

No Action Charter Committee – No Vote Voters Rejected Charter
Baker Coos Clackamas
Jefferson Curry Columbia
Wallowa Lake Deschutes
Polk Douglas (another vote 11/7/2017)
Morrow (as of 1/1/2017)

9 Counties have adopted Home Rule Charters:

Benton, Clatsop, Hood River, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Multnomah, Umatilla, and Washington.

Twenty-four of Oregon’s 36 counties, including the nine with charters, are governed by a board of commissioners comprised of three to five elected members. The remaining 7 less populated counties are still governed by a “county court” consisting of a county judge and two commissioners.

Chart showing administrative structure of counties.


In 1843, Oregon’s provisional government started by dividing the area into four counties: Tuality, Yamhill, Clackamas and Champooick. Under the provisional government, counties were responsible for tracking property, probating estates, overseeing minor judicial functions, enforcing laws, operating jails, and conducting elections. The county officers were the sheriff, clerk, and treasurer. A court of three judges provided general oversight of county affairs in a County Court form of governance.

By the time of statehood in 1859, counties expanded functions over “poor relief,” public health, agricultural services; and developed local functions for roads, certain businesses and county fairs.

Originally, all counties functioned almost exclusively as agents of state government that confined their powers to those expressly authorized or mandated by state law. Efforts to relieve counties of these constraints were made in Oregon as early as 1906 and gradually took on a second role as units of local government responding to needs and preferences of their local constitutuencies, but they were largely unsuccessful until the county home rule constitutional amendment was adopted in 1958.

In 1917, further divisions became the current 36 counties. From territorial days, county officers were elected by the people. Presumable, but unverified, each county unit proposed to their voters either a County Court or County Commissioner form of government for approval.

In 1958 an amendment to the Oregon Constitution (Article VI, section 10 or ORS 203.035) gave counties the option to adopt home rule charters, and a 1973 state law granted all counties the power to exercise broad home rule authority.

Home rule is the power of a local city or county to set up its own system of self-government without receiving a charter from the state. Home rule shifts much of the responsibility for local government from the state legislature to the local community. A county has the ability to amend its governmental organization and powers to suit its needs. A home rule charter is, in essence, a local constitution subject to restrictions found in the United States Constitution, state constitutions, and in state laws applicable to all counties. While not restricted to only things specifically authorized by state law, home rule counties can do anything not specifically forbidden by state or federal law.

As a result, the national Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations has identified county government in Oregon as having the highest degree of local discretionary authority of any state in the nation.

Nine counties have adopted home rule charters wherein voters have the power to adopt and amend their own county government organization. Lane and Washington were the first to adopt “home rule” in 1962, followed by Hood River (1964), Multnomah (1967), Benton (1972), Jackson (1978), Josephine (1980), Clatsop (1988) and Umatilla (1993).

For more detail: County Home Rule in Oregon