Ashland Democrat Jim Olney announced he will make a bid for the Jackson County commissioner seat held by Republican C.W. Smith.




The 55-year-old executive director of the Jackson County Library Foundation said the commissioners have failed to make the process of county government open to local residents.




"We don't have the public engaged enough," said Olney, who has a master's degree in public administration but no previous experience running for office.




Olney is the first Democrat to announce his candidacy for the primary May 20, and the first challenger against the incumbent.




"He has high name familiarity," said Olney of his potential opponent. "It's going to be a tough task."




He said he won't run a negative campaign, and refused to make any specific criticisms about his rival's positions until after the primary is over.




Olney, who has lived in Jackson County since 2004, said he would have handled the events leading up to the closure of libraries last year differently, working hard to make sure the public was aware of every step of the process rather than being surprised at the decision.




Olney was one of the first to suggest publicly that the county look at outsourcing library services as a way to cut costs and get them reopened.




Sharply critical of commissioners in general, he said they have failed to create a clear vision or a clear process for community involvement.




Unlike other counties and cities throughout the state, Jackson doesn't post the minutes of meetings online and doesn't list the names of representatives of various committees, he said. The commissioners should also make more of an effort to hold meetings in different communities and should hold meetings at night to allow more public involvement.




A 12-member task force that looked at the county's financial situation last year had only one Democrat, said Olney. "We can't have a board of commissioners be so partisan," he said.




Instead of a spirit of openness, the commissioners have erected barriers to the public, said Olney




"I don't like to build walls," he said. "I like to break them down."




Commissioner Smith, who was surprised to hear Olney was running, said, "I look forward to the public discussion, and I hope Mr. Olney keeps to the facts and keeps it clean. That's all you can ask."




He said having commissioner meetings in other areas is expensive because it requires remote television setup. However, Smith said he does plan to hold at least one meeting a quarter this year in Ashland, Rogue River and in Central Point.




Smith said Olney's suggestion of holding night meetings would be expensive because it would require staff to work overtime. He said a previous attempt to hold night meetings resulted in poor attendance.




"We tried that and it didn't work," he said.




Bryan Platt, chair of the Jackson County Republican Party, said Olney will have an uphill campaign against Smith.




"I don't mean to sound overconfident, but C.W. is well regarded," said Platt. "I really feel C.W. has represented this county well."




Platt, who was unfamiliar with Olney, said, "He's going to have to spend a lot of time and energy with name recognition."




Paulie Brading, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party, said Olney has been quietly putting together his a strategy for the past few months.




"I think he's going to run a very strong campaign," she said.




Brading said Olney's strong points include a thorough knowledge of how governments work. In 1976, Olney worked on the professional research staff to the Oregon Legislative Assembly conducting performance audits of state agencies.




Though Olney is the first Democrat to come forward, Brading said she knows of one or two others who might enter the race




Olney teaches online classes in public administration to soldiers through Saint Leo University at the Key West Naval Air Station in Monroe County Florida.




He also is a member of various community organizations and is married to Alison Olney.