By T.L. Petersen
By Tuesday afternoon, Ray and Kristine Baum's Sunset Avenue driveway was an obstacle course of boxes and the odds and ends of a busy family life.
A moving van stood at driveway's end, all doors wide open. Boxes and furniture were being hauled up the ramps to the trailer.
Donovan, the Baums' Visla dog, wandered between the driveway and the kitchen, observing and keeping track of where family members were.
Now and then, he'd go check on Andrew Baum, 14, doing a final mowing of the back yard.
Inside, the signs that a busy, large family has lived here for years and years were virtually gone. The kitchen walls were bare to their pale yellow paint. The living room had a mattress on the floor and several blankets gathered in a pile.
And Kristine Baum perched on a kitchen stool, leaning wearily back against a kitchen wall listening to her husband explain what was happening with his work and the move.
Ray Baum, a La Grande native and attorney, was chosen by Gov. Ted Kulongoski last September to be on the state's Public Utility Commission.
Baum's explanation of his selection is that, first, a Republican was needed on the commission. What's more, someone was needed to represent rural interests Â— someone who was also an attorney and had political experience.
Baum had served for a decade in the Oregon Legislature, where he was House majority leader.
And, as an added bonus, Baum had no history with the PUC, neither representing them nor representing clients against the commission.
"It's been more than I expected," Baum says, "very intellectually stimulating."
His work now, he added, also impacts heavily on Oregon's economy.
"The mission of the PUC is that it is charged with protecting customers from the actions of investor-owned utilities Â— gas, electric and telephone companies," Baum says, leaning on a kitchen island.
But the PUC doesn't regulate municipal utilities nor cooperatives, such as Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative.
In those cases, the PUC does have oversight as it relates to safety and pole attachments Â— that electrical lines are correctly attached to power poles and trees are kept safely trimmed away.
For investor-owned utilities, "any rate increase or decrease has to be approved by the PUC," Baum explains.
The PUC staff does analysis and checks that utilities are maintaining service while staying financially viable.
Although it might seem that the PUC is always approving rate hikes, Baum points out that that isn't true.
PGE recently sought a 26 percent rate increase.
"We told them no," Baum says. "Most rate increase requests are substantially reduced."
His phone rings, and Baum moves away to take the call.
Kristine stays leaning against the wall and says that it was her husband's idea to make this move, taking the entire family to West Salem.
The thought of leaving La Grande isn't a new one.
After deciding not to seek re-election so that he could spend more time with his family, Baum returned to full-time private practice in
La Grande. A few years ago he was considered for a federal judge appointment, but that "didn't work out," he says. After that, he did serve on the Oregon Liquor Control Commission while maintaining his practice in La Grande.
Then last summer, he got a call from Kulongoski, asking for a meeting in Baker City.
Rural Oregonians and small-business people needed a representative on the PUC, he was told. Would he take the job?
Since Sept. 1, Baum has been commuting to Salem, spending usually four days a week there, and then coming home.
"It's a little stressful," admits Kristine, both considering the move and dealing with the family situation since last September.
And then, daughter Alexis, 18, a 2004 graduate of La Grande HIgh School, planned to leave Saturday Â— two days after her parents moved to Salem Â— to spend 11 months in South America as an American Field Services college exchange program student.
Daughters Mary, 16, and Libby, and son Andrew will be going to school near their new home.
Knowing that the move was coming has given Kristine time to go through the closets.
"I've had nine months to go through things and get rid of stuff," she says.
But thinking about growing up here, and living in Union County for most of her life Â— even though there was a short stretch of living in Salem during Ray's legislative term Â— seems to cause a tightening of her face and a swallow or two at all that's ending.
"Last time I knew it was temporary," she says. "The kids all have friends. I love the teachers at the high school. Â… I've lived here my whole life."
But Kristine quickly finds a small smile and changes her attitude.
"The kids will be OK, and we'll still have family here.
"Our older kids (two live in Utah) think this is good Â— they can fly in from Utah without having the long drive," she says.
"There'll be good things, I know there'll be good things."
Again, Kristine's eyes look into a different place. Alexis, she says, didn't even want to go to Salem and see the new house, at least not before leaving on her South American adventure.
"I've shed tears," Kristine confesses, but then focuses on the new house situated about five miles outside of town near fields and vineyards.
Ray isn't through his first year of a four-year term, but thinks that a reappointment is a possibility in 2007.
As he talks more about the PUC's work, he says that the big surprise for him has been the "complexity of the issues and the surprising developments in telecommunications occurring daily.
"We're not too far from the Â‘Scotty, beam me up' world," he says, talking about the complexity of voice-over-Internet communications.
"I want to be sure the new telecommunications technology is available to the rural areas."
And then there's the possibility of broad-band Internet service being carried over electrical power lines.
"We've got some issues to work out," Baum says, watching as his family's boxes are loaded into the moving van.
Alexis needs her mother. Some of her paperwork needs to be found, and she's learned she can only take two suitcases with her.