By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
John Lattimer expected his job in government to be short-term. His wife was going back to school and he figured he'd work for the Kansas Legislature while finishing his doctoral dissertation.
"So I went to work and never stopped. And I never wrote my dissertation either."
Fifty-one years later, Lattimer is stopping. He is retiring June 30 as Marion County's chief administrative officer, in part at the urging of his wife, Vickie, and family. On June 23, he turned 78.
"It's been the best job of all the jobs I've had, for a variety of reasons," Lattimer said of his more than 15 years at Marion County. "They like to talk about government close to the people. Well, it's that – but it's that you get to see what you're doing actually happening on the ground."
He helped steer the county through the Great Recession – wise planning meant fewer layoffs and service reductions than in many local governments – and the headaches of fixing the Marion County Courthouse after a fire. He kept county services going during the reconstruction of Courthouse Square, dealt with the financial woes of The Oregon Garden and strived to improve the county infrastructure so its buildings would last for years.
Along the way, he has tried to educate residents about county government.
"Counties run health care in the state. People don't know that. Counties run jails. We've got the fourth-largest jail in the state, right here in Marion County. We do elections. We do all the (property and tax) assessment for all the local governments in the county, and we send out all the funds to all those public entities. We fix bridges. We fix roads," Lattimer said.
"I've learned so much."
Despite having held several jobs in Oregon state government, Lattimer knew virtually nothing about those county roles when he joined Marion County in the fall of 2003. But he knew about budgets and he also had been thinking about how to make government more efficient and effective.
"I wanted to run the government like an enterprise, without silos, where people worked together no matter whether they're in finance or public safety," he said. "It took about eight years to get there because I had to do a lot of work with the departments.
"And now they would never go back. We've broken down the silo walls. The sheriff works with the community services department. The district attorney and the sheriff work together and both work with the health department. Public Works works with them, and they work hand in glove, and it's just amazing."
Today, the county is known for tackling complex issues, including the collaborative efforts to reduce recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals and to help keep people from winding up in jail in the first place.
"That's the kind of thing I really like about county government," Lattimer said. "You can be innovative, and I like being innovative. Sometimes it doesn't work, but you'll never know if you don't try, right? And we're doing, I think, a lot of innovative things.
"We've gotten to the point now where we have a statewide reputation of being one of the best counties in the state."
He credits the elected officials, managers and employees for those successes.
"I figured people hired me to give them my best judgment, my best advice, whether they liked it or not," he said.
"In all of my jobs, I didn't back off if I thought something was right or something wasn't. I always was honest with my bosses. What I learned was they appreciated it. Even if they didn't agree with me, they appreciated that I was telling them what I thought, I was telling it straight and I wasn't trying to shine them on. A strong leader, if they recognize that, they can be really effective."
Retirement was a hard decision for someone accustomed for 51 years to getting up in the morning and going to work. Among the ways Lattimer will continue using his lifetime of financial and organizational knowledge – "I've got to keep my head in the game" -- is through his ongoing service on the Salem Health Board of Directors.
"If I were to define myself," he said, "I'm a public servant first, last and always. I think it's very honorable profession, and I wish a lot more people saw it that way."