Kitzhaber places gag order on state employees

Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls)

However, his (Kitzhaber’s) apparent requirement that all state employees’ speech must be edited through his office cast a chilling perspective on his pledge to preside over an open and transparent government.

On February 7, 2011 Governor Kitzhaber’s Chief of Staff Curtis Robinhold sent a disturbing memo to all state agency directors providing direction to the state agencies on expressing positions on pending state legislation.

The most troubling part of the memo states: “There should be no surprises to the Governor’s Office on the input agencies provide in formal committee testimony or otherwise regarding pending legislation. As such, even if expressing a “neutral” position and providing factual information, agencies must provide a heads up to the governor’s Legislative Director and assigned Policy Advisor in advance. Agencies must obtain authorization from the Governor’s Legislative Director or their assigned Policy Advisor before supporting or opposing bills, whether at their own initiation or when asked for input from stakeholders or legislators”.

This memo appears to require state employees to obtain permission from Governor Kitzhaber’s office before expressing any position or responding to any question from a Legislator regarding any pending legislation whether asked in committee or anywhere else.

The memo goes on to describe the conditions under which the public employees may be allowed to give factual testimony in committee or to answer direct questions asked by legislators. Those conditions include whether the response is consistent with the Governor’s current budget recommendations and legislative agenda and whether the response will create excessive controversy that could distract from the Governor’s higher level agenda and message.

It is understandable that the governor wishes to present a consistent message to both the Legislature and the people of Oregon. However, his apparent requirement that all state employees’ speech must be edited through his office cast a chilling perspective on his pledge to preside over an open and transparent government.

Moreover, it is the responsibility of Legislators to oversee state agency actions and outcomes as well as to determine the cost effectiveness of how the taxpayers’ money is being spent. Kitzhaber’s directive appears to limit that oversight to only what the Governor wants the legislators to hear. It also will place state employees in the untenable position of being told not to respond to direct questions from Legislators without those answers being edited by his staff.

My office has submitted requests to Legislative Counsel for legal opinions regarding Governor Kitzhaber’s authority to suppress the speech of Oregon public employees.

 

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