PENDLETON — Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock is counting down the time to his last day on the job.
Literally — he has a clock on his desk at the county courthouse in Pendleton ticking down to the second when he retires Dec. 30.
Murdock said former Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering gave him the clock. Then it had 700 days on it.
Voters elected Murdock to the Umatilla County board in 2013 to fill the seat Bill Hansell vacated when he won election to the state Senate. The electorate returned Murdock for full, four-year terms in 2014 and 2018. He did not run for reelection this year.
“When I ran for the vacant seat, Clint Barber, mayor of Ukiah, said he could support me because I was so old, I could only stay around for a limited time,” Murdock said. “It’s good not to overstay your welcome. You get fresh ideas and outlook when you bring in new people.”
Murdock sought the job of county commissioner after careers in education, journalism, ranching, volunteer and public service in Washington and Oregon. Cindy Timmons of Milton-Freewater is succeeding Murdock in the Position 1 board seat after winning in the November general election.
Career as county commissionerMurdock admitted to some frustration in recent years in certain realms of county business. But he was proudest of accomplishments in two areas during his tenure on the board: stabilizing the budget and improving staff morale.
“Historically, the county budget had been something of a roller coaster, with frequent ups and downs, sometimes windfalls and at other times, unanticipated shortfalls,” Murdock wrote in his 2022 budget message. “From the beginning, we committed ourselves to a stable level of programs and services.”
An important step was uniting the budget and finance offices under Chief Financial Officer Robert Pahl. The board installed Marie Simonis, a long-time fixture in the finance office, as assistant director of budget and finance.
Budget and finance was not the only responsibility within Murdock’s portfolio, but managing the county’s fiscal position affects all it does.
Among nine financial goals, benchmarks and guidelines, he ranked doubling the county’s assessed valuation and generating nongrant revenue highest.
In 2012, the county’s assessed value was more than $4.7 billion. By 2022, it is almost $7.5 billion.
“Very few counties in Oregon can point to such an increase,” Murdock said. “With new developments and almost unprecedented new housing, it is headed for $8 billion.”
Another board goal was to create significant nongrant revenue equal to about 40% of general fund expenditures.
Besides leaving the county on a sounder financial footing, Murdock also is proud of improving staff morale.
“We really work hard here,” he said. “When I came, one of the things I heard from staff was they didn’t feel appreciated and valued. We turned that around on day one. We focused on morale. They feel we’ve turned it around. Line staff have been promoted to managers.”
Upon his retirement, many staffers sent Murdock letters thanking him for the changes he had wrought.
A few expressed their sentiments in the board offices Wednesday, Nov. 30, following its morning meeting.
“George has made Umatilla County an exceptional place to work,” Simonis said. “He has established an environment in which employees are appreciated and valued. Early in his tenure, he promoted me to my current position. He has been a wonderful mentor and supporter. His oversight and big-picture views have helped the county’s financial future be a solid, stable one. George is leaving a legacy of stability, professionalism and a dedicated staff, working toward a common goal. He believes in me and has made these last 10 years the best of my career.”
Rachael Reynolds, assessment and taxation director, also had kind words for Murdock.
“When Commissioner Murdock became a commissioner, he made it a point to learn every employee’s name and what they did for the county,” she said. “This small gesture made employees feel recognized and important. This started the turning point in improving morale.”
And like Hansell of Athena, Murdock serves as president of the board of the Association of Oregon Counties. John Shafer, chair of the Umatilla County board, will be his successor in that role in a few years.
“Three presidents in about a dozen years is quite an achievement for Umatilla County,” Shafer said.
Retirement plansMurdock’s wife, Donna, retired 16 years ago from the Milton-Freewater library.
“My wife really likes camping,” he said. “Historically she has camped by herself in a small trailer. She has acquired a larger trailer and made me promise to spend 40 nights a year camping with her. We’ve spent an awful lot of time moving around. You pay a price for that.”
Murdock of Pendleton also is chair of the board of directors of Community Action Program of East Central Oregon, and his successor on the county board, Cindy Timmons of Milton-Freewater, is vice-chair. He plans to continue serving on the CAPECO board.
“Eight years ago I saw a food hub in New Orleans,” Murdock said, “I dreamed of having that here to provide food security for children and families, with nutrition instruction on cooking with fresh food and vegetables. I agreed to stay on the board in hopes of achieving something like that here.”
And Murdock said he plans to continue being involved in promoting Red Angus cattle breeding.
Life before the board“I spent four decades in public education,” Murdock said.
Murdock was born in Newport, Rhode Island, where his father served as a U.S. Navy commander during World War II.
After the war, his family returned to southwestern Washington. Murdock graduated from high school in Toledo, Washington, where his family bought 80 acres, launching his interest in farming and ranching. He raised hogs, sheep and cattle. Each year he also sold several thousand fryers under his own label to customers in Seattle.
Murdock majored in agriculture and journalism at Washington State University. He was named outstanding graduate in the College of Agriculture and in journalism. After leaving WSU, he went to work for the McMinnville News-Register, and enrolled in a master’s degree program in education at Linfield College.
Murdock then worked as a teacher, principal and superintendent in Chehalis, Walla Walla and Pasco schools.
“At that time, Pasco’s school district was 75% Hispanic and 5% Black,” he said. “It’s even more minority now. Umatilla County is the fifth most diverse county in Oregon. Portland is the whitest city in America. We need to do more to help the Hispanic community here.”
In 1997, he was named Washington’s superintendent of the year. Two years later, he moved to Pendleton to become superintendent of what is now the InterMountain Education Service District.
The East Oregonian in 2007 hired Murdock as its editor and publisher. Two-and-a-half years later, he became superintendent of the Douglas Education Service District, Roseburg.
During his time in these cities, Murdock pursued his interests in ranching. While the family still owns a small flock of registered sheep, their primary focus turned to Red Angus cattle. His son lives at the home ranch on Yoakum Road, off Interstate 84 Exit 199, about halfway between the Echo and Highway 11 exits.
He served four terms as president of the American Montadale Sheep Breeders Association, and is a member of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
WSU has twice recognized Murdock with awards. He is a member of the board of trustees of the WSU Foundation.
He has been a Rotarian for 40 years, and he and Donna are members of the First Christian Church in Pendleton. They have two daughters, Shannon Bergevin of Walla Walla, with husband and two children; Bryn of Hermiston, with two children, and son Ian of Echo, with wife and two children.