Oregonian Weighs In on Ethics Reform

The Oregonian has an editorial today praising the ethics reform legislation pushed by Democrats in the State Legislature last year:

The entire planning commission of Elgin resigned the other day. So did four planning commissioners in Maupin. Some kind of virus seems to be racing through the volunteer corps that governs rural Oregon. We suspect it's a case of cold feet.

These people -- including some stalwarts of public service -- quit in the face of new ethics requirements that kick in next month. By April 15, they would have had to file statements identifying all sources -- though not actual amounts -- of any income over $1,000. Plus those of close relatives or members of their households. The disclosure forms go on to address property holdings, honoraria and certain types of debt and investments.

Whoa, Nellie, where are we here: Nazi Germany?

Not quite.

The editorial goes so far as to call 2007, the first session with Democrats in control of the House, "a watershed year for clean government in Oregon":

We recognize that much civic business in Oregon is conducted by volunteers. Nowhere is this more true than in small, rural communities. And we're wary of any change that might inhibit volunteers from fully participating in decision-making affecting their communities. But we hope these people can come to understand that the benefits of helping grow their communities far outweigh any costs of filling out a six-page form.

Yes, these will be public documents. But the new law does not require them to be posted on the Internet until 2010, and there is talk of tweaks by the 2009 Legislature that might allow for redaction of certain information, such as home addresses.

Helping to make civic decisions is indeed a public service; it is also a privilege. And transparency is the price of admission. Oregonians, all of us, have an abiding interest in government being as open as possible. That's because when people are making decisions, their neighbors need to know whether those decision-makers are in any way benefiting personally.

It's that simple.

And it's that right.

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • (Show?)

    I'm willing to bet that the O's editorial was inspired by this post at the CFM Insider blog.

    For the uninitiated, the CFM Insider is produced by mega-lobbyists Conkling Fiskum & McCormick.

    And while I'm sure they're swell guys, I'm also pretty sure that they're not terribly worried about the travails of the Planning Commission in Elgin, Oregon.

    Good to see that the O didn't fall for it.

  • IWMPB (unverified)

    Or more likely a response to the actual news stories published in newspapers regarding the resignations.

    It's already hard enough to get qualified individuals to run for elected office . . . Now we're going to put the personal information of volunteers on the internet for all to see; when is enough, enough?

    Could it be that this was one of the "centerpieces" of Merkley's tenure as Speaker, and thus Kari, you are highlighting it here to show all the "great things" he did?

  • Bridget (unverified)

    I don't much care for this ethics rule.

    There are a lot of people who are ethical and would be good government volunteers who just don't want their county in their business. As a freelance graphic designer and copywriter, I wouldn't want to have to list every client of mine. Not because I have anything to hide, just because it's my business.

    Folks in rural areas have even smaller economic circles than we Portlandites. So, now we'll see planning committees all over Oregon leave, and then what sort of oversight will we have? What happens then? There's got to be some sort of happy medium.

  • LT (unverified)

    My guess is that this movement to include local governments in "sunshine" legislation has a lot to do with things like uproar over local planning comm. decisions.

    If an explained decision happens (approving a gravel mine on farmland, allowing a car dealership to expand close to a playground, etc.) then citizens can wonder what happened--and it may change city politics by neighborhood groups gaining power or something like that.

    I like this line:" transparency is the price of admission". There are people who campaign to elect local officials (city government, school board, etc.) and then wonder why someone they campaigned for changes over the years and doesn't seem as interested in open government anymore.

    AND, in general terms, there is a temptation for someone in public office to think they know best and lose touch with the community. Of course there should be tweaks like "there is talk of tweaks by the 2009 Legislature that might allow for redaction of certain information, such as home addresses.".

    But I see nothing wrong in knowing that a local planning comm. member or local elected official got maybe $2000 from some source. This shouldn't regulate the flowering plant given to the local official who speaks to a garden club, but over $1000 sounds reasonable.

  • Different Salem Staffer (unverified)

    Worst bill ever.*

    It has no discernable effect on influence peddling or policy outcomes... but it does make it difficult for the staff/activist crowd to socialize after work.

    Thanks a bunch.

    (*Ok, maybe not the absolute worst, but up there.)

  • Different Salem Staffer (unverified)

    By and by, I'm referring to the sweeing SB10 reforms, not the GSPC reporting specifically.

  • (Show?)

    You're absolutely right, IWMPB.

    A post on BlueOregon is worth vastly more than an editorial in the Oregonian. After all, millions of our fellow citizens read BlueOregon (the most influential publication in the state), and just a few thousands read that "newspaper" thing. It's nice to be able to share our limelight on the kids at SW Broadway.

    (Note: sarcasm.)

  • (Show?)

    And on the substance...

    We recognize that much civic business in Oregon is conducted by volunteers. Nowhere is this more true than in small, rural communities.

    And it's in small, rural communities where abuses are most likely to be hidden away, never seen by the public. Here in Portland, we've got a bunch of local media outlets all chasing every wrinkle of the financial lives of our city council members and candidates.

    But has anyone noticed how much more coverage the Portland City Council gets in statewide media than even races for federal office? (Has there even been a TV story about the open congressional seat?) And nevermind the planning commission in Elgin and in places like it all over the state.

    And yet, when a new Wal-Mart pops up, or a mega-development is approved, citizens are often shocked - and wonder how it is these things got approved, wondering if someone got paid off, etc.

    Financial disclosure forms are a small price to pay when major decisions are being made by public officials, even if they're volunteers.

  • R. Baxter (unverified)

    I live in a community (Corvallis) that has required similar disclosure for some time. It hasn't been a problem that I am aware of. If you can't disclose how you (and your immediate family) make a living, don't volunteer for a committee. Personally, I like the disclosure.

  • IWMPB (unverified)

    My bad Kari, you're absolutely correct. I had no idea that you were on the editorial board at the O, and thus, wasn't aware that you had any hand in making sure that the opinion piece was published. You must be if the decision to post on BO (which you do have control over) is in any way equated to an OpEd in the O. You chose to highlight this AFTER it was published by the O, which would ADD to the "millions" who read it the first time around.

    Oh, btw, weren't you the one who surmised that the piece was written in response to CFM's blog, rather than other newspaper stories?? Just curious.

  • Miles (unverified)

    This bill is awful because it will drive people out of public service and have very little positive benefit. Under the new rules, in order to volunteer on a local board or commission you have to reveal all of your personal financial information to your friends and neighbors. How many good people will decide that's too much of a price to pay? While we sit here and masturbate over "transparency", those good people will go on with their private lives and our civic institutions will suffer.

    In addition, good people are going to be inadvertently caught by the new rules. Do you realize that if your kid is friends with a teacher's kid and you buy that kid a ticket to a movie, that's a prohibited gift of entertainment to a family member of a public official? Do you realize that all public employees are considered public "officials" under this new law? So if you're, say, a maintenance worker for the city, and you go to an event thrown by your union at a local restaurant, you've just violated the law by accepting a meal from an entity that has business before City Council. You are subject to all the fines and penalties under the law. Or say you've been involved with education your whole life, you've served on the PTA, you've become good friends with teachers and administrators alike, and you win a seat on your local school board. At your annual summer bbq that you've thrown for 20 years, a good friend -- who happens to teach at a local charter school -- brings a bottle of Oregon pinot, as she has done for 20 years. Boom, you are subject to fines.

    Is this the way to encourage progressive political involvement, by assuming that anyone who aspires to public service is in it for personal gain? This bill at its core assumes public officials at all levels are corrupt, and it defines public officials in the broadest possible sense. Oregon has a serious anti-public service attitude, and it's destroying the state's ability to attract and retain high quality public servants at all levels. This bill will seriously exacerbate the problem.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I was on the Crook Co. Planning Commission in the mid-1990's for awhile. I was appointed by the County Court after I had sent in an application to volunteer. I wasn't paid anything to be on the commission, and in fact it cost me money in terms of lost business to be on the commission.

    So, what do I think about this new law? If I were still on the Commission, I would leave now. It is nobody's business who I do business with here.

    The laws that were in effect were already very effective. The prior law had us declare any actual or potential conflict of interest regarding any matter that came before the commission. Thereby on a case by case basis we dealt with conflicts of interest. In the probably 100+ cases I dealt with as a Planning Commissioner in Crook County, I declared a conflict of interest with two, and stepped down. In the history of the Crook Co. commission, there was an incident where a member that sat on a hearing that resulted in rules for mining was later accused of having a conflict of interest. He had a 15,000 acre ranch, and had a small pit where he hauled out gravel for a couple of bad places (muddy) on his roads. I know this fellow well, and it never even occurred to him that his tiny rock pit represented a conflict of interest. He was accused of the conflict, and ended up paying several thousand dollars of his own money to defend the ethics charge - which was later dropped as being a moot point as existing rock pits were not covered by the mining rules that he addressed as a Commissioner.

    So, the existing laws worked, and frankly were pretty scary for those of us who volunteered. Each agenda, I would go through the list of cases, and attempt to figure out if I knew the people involved, and if there was any way that I could possibly have a conflict. The looming threat of spending thousands to defend an ethics charge does motive one to think about these things.

    As for the new laws - Why should my entire community know which businesses I do business with? Why should my entire community know which businesses my wife and son do business with? It isn't relevant to the ethics of being on a Planning Commission, and it can cause me harm in my business to have this information revealed. This is especially true for me in a rural area.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I just noted that Kari wrote, "And it's in small, rural communities where abuses are most likely to be hidden away, never seen by the public."

    Wrong. Frankly, in a small town/rural area, everyone knows more about what is going on than in your larger towns, media and all. I have lived both places. When I was on the County Planning Commission, people would stop me at the Post Office and at the grocery store to talk about issues that had been before the Commission.

    Kari - please do some self-examination of your internal stereotype of the ignornant rural people. As I have stated here on Blue Oregon before, we tend to be better informed that urban people as we not only get your big market media, but have our local media that you never see or read, and of course the word of mouth of living here. While rural people tend to be more conservative, that is not the result of ignorance as much as one might want it to be. The other stereotype of urban liberals is that if someone holds a conservative view that they disagree with, it is because that person just doesn't understand, therefore the issue becomes one of educating the person who holds a different view. This is most grating on people who in fact are more informed than those that would "educate" us.

    So, please examine the stereotypes and bias that underlie such comments.

  • (Show?)

    The other stereotype of urban liberals is that if someone holds a conservative view that they disagree with, it is because that person just doesn't understand, therefore the issue becomes one of educating the person who holds a different view.

    Having been the recipient of the exact same attitude (but in reverse) by older relatives when I was "just a kid", I definitely can appreciate how frustrating that would be.

    I definitely believe that perfectly smart people can have conservative views. Wrong doesn't mean dumb. Just wrong.

    Kari - please do some self-examination of your internal stereotype of the ignornant rural people. ... we tend to be better informed that urban people as we not only get your big market media, but have our local media that you never see or read, and of course the word of mouth of living here.

    I didn't say anything about rural people being ignorant.

    Merely that smalltown media tends to be much more closely affiliated with the key business interests in their small towns -- especially the real estate development interests.

    When a new Wal-Mart comes into town, the local paper is going to see a big increase in its ad sales. No matter how well-meaning the reporter-editors are, that's a very tough river to paddle upstream against.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Kari - The word ignorant means not being informed. You claimed that rural people would especially benefit from this new ethics reform because abuses would be "hidden away, never seen by the public". So, you didn't use the word ignorant, but you accessed the stereotype.

    Do you know that every Planning Commission, City or County, has to publish the agenda of every meeting, specifically stating what issues are pending and the names of the involved parties, in the newspaper of record for that City or County? Do you read your newspaper of record regarding these meetings? Do all of your neighbors? Hmmm, I wonder as a percentage of the population, how many Portlanders read - and this is what used to be, and I'm not sure anymore - the Daily Journal of Commerce? I wonder how many residents of Prineville read the Central Oregonian? Would you even bet on Portlanders being more informed than Prinevillians as a percentage of total population?

    In countering my first post, you access a third stereotype. Namely that "real estate" interests are always up to something that the people wouldn't like if they knew about it. Real estate people care about their communities, and unlike most people, those that belong to the Realtor Associations have a code of ethics that govern their actions. In that code of ethics, the community and the customers interests get put ahead of the interests of personal profit and gain. Nobody in a small town wants their small town ruined by big businesses. For every dollar a Walmart might bring to a local paper, that paper knows it will lose long term business relations with existing smaller businesses. Your stereotypes exceed any rational basis, and just expose further bias.

    Bend beat back the big Walmart store. Did the newspaper campaign for it, did real estate brokers campaign for it? No.

    Kari - you just don't get it. Please re-examine and address these stereotypes and bias that you have about what you think you know about rural and small town Oregon.

  • LT (unverified)

    Steve, you hit the nail on the head with this comment, "and of course the word of mouth of living here. "

    There was a chair of a local county Democratic Party who was really stunned when Measure 9 campaign finance reform passed in the 1990s. He hadn't seen a big professional campaign for it, so he was stunned when it won (not surprising, as one big time lobbyist was stunned it qualified for the ballot). He asked why it won and what I knew that he didn't.

    I told him about people we knew who had been offended by caucus types or others telling colorful characters who had been in a politics a long time that they had to raise the same amount of money as newcomers--some rot about name familiarity expiring at the end of each year because people have short memories. When legends and folktales are told about colorful characters, it is hard to believe that is true.

    So I told that county chair "You and I know people who have been angry about stuff like that. They may not make a big stink about it in public, but they can tell their closest friends they think it is stupid. And if each of those close friends tells 2 friends, and they tell 2 friends, and they tell 2 friends, eventually it can reach critical mass---which is why some say word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising.

    Another story: rural S. Marion County has some small towns like Aumsville, Turner, Jefferson, and a lot of area in between them. One October I ran into an old friend from that area in a store, and tried to talk her into taking a look at a friend of mine who was running for state rep. in that area. She said "Oh, my friends and I don't pay attention to ads or mailers or anything like that because we know all the local people. So a group of us gets together and discusses all the candidates, and THAT is how we decide how to vote".

    Which is why some of us have been saying for years that things like polls and consultant-driven campaigns don't necessarily work as well downstate as they do in big cities in the Portland area.

    Even here in Salem (in years when there weren't umpteen ballot measures) there have been groups of people who got together in someone's home, a restaurant, or some such meeting place and gone over ballot measures 1 by 1. One year we had a group of about 10 people.

    Because of my friends who served on Common Cause and invited me to some of the meetings, I can understand the concept behind the ethics rules. But Steve has a point--in small towns people may know more about what goes on than in big cities.

  • Joanne Rigutto (unverified)

    I was born and raised in Portland and have lived in Mulino, about 20 miles south of Portland, for the past 17 years. The difference between the two areas is huge, especially in how information gets around. We always say, what's the point of buying the paper, everyone's going to know what happened before the ink is dry on the thing anyway. Now, while that's a joke, it does point out how info travels out here.

    As to transparency in government, I got involved in government originally because of some insanely intrusive federal and international ag regulations. That got me interested in local government and in particular resulted in my becoming active in the Hamlet. Mulino used to have a CPO, and a vote was held and the CPO was upgraded to a Hamlet. I had this big idea that there was something fishy going on. So I decided to get involved. What I found is one of the most transparent processes I've ever seen. While the hamlet isn't strictly speaking a government entity - it's an intergovernmental entity - it incorporates the type of transparency that I think a lot of people would like to see in government. I think the type of transparency that we enjoy is possible because of the scale. We're so much smaller out here that we can do things - like know each other - than a city like Portland can. There are just too many people there for a government official to give individual attention to everyone who has a concern. That type of distancing can make accountability more difficult, which perhaps is why the ethics law came about to begin with.

    As far as that reporting goes, I have a copy of ORS 244 and from what I can see, I think it covers all public officals, not just people on planning commissions. I'm the webmaster for the hamlet as well as the registrar, and I'm supposedly going to be involved in the urban/rural reserve work that the three counties and Metro will be doing over the next 18 months or more. I have an idea that the work I will be doing will make me subject to the reporting also. I flat out don't have access to some of the information required by the form. If I am required to fill if out and file it, I'll have no choice but to put on the form that I don't have access to those types of information. I don't have access to the type of personal information on my family members or even my boyfriend with whom I've lived for the last 18 years that I may be required to report. If I ask for it they are going to tell me to take a long walk off a short pier. I have as much hope of gaining access to that information as I would in gaining access to classified material at the DOD. I don't think that the government can legaly force those people not involved in government to give up that information. It can force me into giving up my information, but not them.

    I'm going to be asking our county liason about how this law affects those of us involved with the hamlet and how it affects me in my participation in the urban/rural reserves work. Until I read the thing, I thought it only affected people on planning commissions.

  • Frieman (unverified)

    So if a City Manager has a daughter who dates a classmate who's family may have an interest with the City, say a contractor, then the daughter has to pay for all her dates herself...or it's unethical behavior? What?

    See the last question:


    This is what "ethics" has progressed too? This is what keeps Oregon's government activities transparent?

    I remember when being ethicial meant that a person is able to recognize a moment of truth and then do the right thing - behaviorally. Now it mean filling out government forms correctly, not accepting money on a date because of who your parents are, and giving up your right to privacy to a government entity.

    Oregon appears to be growing a facist bent in the name of progress and goverment "transparency" by telling it's citizen if they want to participate in local government then give the State personal information and check your freedoms at the door - which is facism.

    Unfortunately when the rural conservatives and liberals point this out, we bury our heads, laugh it off because they are rural communities, interject references to Wal-Mart a couple of times, all to make us feel better about a revisions to a law we wrote about "ethics" when all it does is drive decent people from politics and will allow us to play "gotchya" with political enemies.

    The volunteers and Councilpersons don't want to do this and have had several legal discussions with their City attorneys on this "ethics" law. Not all are conservatives, there are a lot of Dems that have resigned because of violations to their civil liberties.

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