It should be an intriguing political campaign this spring, with three seats up for grabs on the five-member Washington County Board of Commissioners.

We expect to hear a lot from the candidates on key issues, such as, for example, how much growth is too much, and whether tax breaks to large corporations should continue as a way to encourage companies to expand their operations — or whether that money should instead be directed toward school districts. There is an opportunity for a valuable airing of differing philosophies and a chance to enlighten the county’s voters on the pros and cons of each approach.

Yet at a time when most citizens (and voters) say they would prefer to have more focus on issues and less partisanship, we instead appear to be getting even more partisanship.

These days, even the “non-partisan” races are seeing an increasing dose of party politics, and this development is especially visible in the Washington County Commission races.

In 2010, the Republican establishment lined up behind County Commissioner Andy Duyck’s bid to move up to the county chairman post that was being vacated by Tom Brian.

Duyck’s opponent, fellow Commissioner Dick Schouten, was a registered Democrat who had earlier been endorsed by the Washington County Democrats.

The Washington County Republican Party, in turn, endorsed Duyck, a registered Republican. Neither move was surprising or divisive.

But then, Kevin Hoar, the chairman of the county Republicans, trashed Schouten as “a strong advocate for the pro-radical environmental, anti-business and private sector job growth, pro-traffic gridlock and forced urbanization, pro-secular social progressive, reckless pro-tax and spend policies that Multnomah County is famous for ... the leftists and their machine of government unions, eco-radicals and car hating are ready to gobble up our county and turn it into the socialist workers paradise that is Multnomah County.”

Duyck quickly distanced himself from the diatribe, but many feared that it would open the door for Democrats, who hold a significant registration edge in the county, to frame future commission elections as battles between the left and the right.

So, we were watching carefully last week when Allen Amabisca filed to run against Duyck. His candidacy is being supported by some top officials of the Washington County Democratic Party, including Ron Morgan, the party’s field organizer, and Matthew Koehler, who runs the party’s Facebook page. Further, former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Furse, a high-profile Democratic Party figure, has filed to challenge incumbent Commissioner Bob Terry, who has long been active in Republican Party politics.

None of that, by itself, is particularly troubling, but we did notice that state Rep. Ben Unger, a Hillsboro Democrat, chose to attend Amabisca’s campaign launch party at the Helvetia Tavern last week rather than hear the annual “State of the City” address from Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey. Although the mayor’s office is non-partisan, it’s no secret that Willey leans Republican, and he has already publicly endorsed Duyck. (Hillsboro’s other Democratic state representative, Joe Gallegos, did attend Willey’s State of the City address.)

Willey’s State of the City speech was very positive, upbeat and uplifting — but one section seemed out of place. In discussing the Strategic Investment Program (SIP), which encourages businesses to create jobs by offering various tax breaks to businesses that expand, Willey lit into “critics” of the SIP program.

The remarks appeared to be directed generally at Democrats, who have questioned the tax abatements, and specifically at Unger, who recently proposed legislation that would exempt school property taxes from the SIP.

We’re not naive, but it would be nice if city or county leaders with strong leanings toward a particular political party could check their party labels at the door when they get to work on the public’s business — particularly when they holding non-partisan offices.

If they want an example, they need look no further than Tom Brian, who was elected to the statehouse as a Democrat and then jumped to the GOP. But once he took office as county chairman, Brian had little use for partisan posturing, knowing that the key to making deals at the regional level is building relationships based on trust, not calculus based on Ds and Rs.

As voters, it’s our responsibility to do the same. County elections should not be decided by which party is backing a specific candidate. Important issues are going to be addressed in this campaign, and as citizens it’s up to each of us to listen to what each candidate has to say — and then decide which course is a better one for the future of our county.

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