Senator Whitsett: OHA rules too strict for camps

by Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls)

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) attempted to impose new oppressive and capricious rules on Oregon camps (e.g. youth camps, scout camps, summer camps, day camps, nature camps, science & athletic camps) that would only apply to PRIVATE camps but NOT government camps! Enforcement is farmed out to county inspectors who are not consistent, who often are too adversarial and who sometimes make camp owners comply with things not even in the rules. The cost of compliance with the mindless detail in the regulation is forcing camps out of business. Some common sense is needed.

Last spring Senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and I were approached by several organizational camp owners seeking relief from what they described as oppressive and even capricious administrative rules being enforced by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). The OHA is an agency with a multibillion dollar annual budget whose regulatory tentacles reach into nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Moreover, the camp owners told us that at that time OHA was in the process of drafting some thirty four pages of amended rules that would make compliance even more difficult and expensive.

An organizational camp is defined in Oregon administrative law as any facility operated for recreational use by groups or organizations. They include youth camps, scout camps, summer camps, day camps, nature camps, science camps, athletic camps, survival camps, and camps run by religious, private and public educational and community service organizations. Oregon has one hundred forty seven organizational camps licensed and regulated by the OHA. About twenty of those camps directly serve the citizens in our Senate District 28.

In response to the camp organizers’ concerns, Senator Johnson and I reviewed the current and proposed draft rules in question. We then met with Oregon Health Authority employees in my Senate office to discuss the scope and content of the rules. Following that in-depth conversation, the OHA staff decided both to discontinue the implementation of the draft rules as well as to review the appropriateness and applicability of the current rules. They agreed to seek out and listen to the concerns of the camp owners and managers.

The agency is now in the process of holding a series of seven statewide meetings to solicit input and feedback from those camp operators and owner’s regarding what are appropriate rules and regulations. Following that listening tour the OHA intends to select a committee to assist in identified any needed rule making changes.

I attended the second of those seven meetings held at the Medford YMCA last Friday. Organizational camps were well represented at the meeting. Several issues were discussed by the camp owners that are truly disturbing.

The owners pointed out that the administrative rules only regulate privately owned organizational camps. Government owned camps are exempt from the oppressive regulations. Agency employees confirmed that their rules only apply to the regulation of privately owned camps. They offered no explanation as to why there should be two classes of camps.

The Oregon Health Authority contracts with the counties to implement and enforce the administrative rules regulating the private camps. The owners alleged that the counties are not consistent in the application of those rules, the protocol for their inspections, or in their enforcement activities. They pointed out that county inspectors are often too adversarial, choosing to issue citations rather than work with the camp operators to encourage compliance. Some inspectors even require that camp owners to comply with directives that are not even in the written rules. OHA employees did not dispute those allegations and offered little explanation as to why there is little consistency.

Statewide, about eighty percent of the camping activities are organized by entities that lease the camping facility from the camp owners. The owners point out that OHA rules obligate them to require their tenants to obey more than thirty pages of rules. The agency requires the camp owners to be their rule enforcer and then sanctions them for any infraction of those rules by their tenants. Agency employees seemed to understand that this is clearly an impossible situation for the camp owners that will drive many of them out of existence.

The camp owners and operators fully support the more significant rules such as those designed to insure potable drinking water, adequate sanitation, wholesome and safe food and other major public health measures. The need for safety measures such as lifeguards, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and camp security is undisputed. No one wants to unnecessarily place a camper at risk.

However, many of the camp owners and managers strongly oppose the oppressive specificity of the administrative rules that have created untenable legal and regulatory environments. It is the cost of compliance with that mindless detail in the regulation of every camp activity that is forcing their camps out of business.

Likewise, it is the regulatory environment that causes many prospective camping organizers to seek other facilities for their camping experience. Their cost of compliance with OHA rules has become too high to participate. Many camping groups are now choosing to stay overnight in public campgrounds, or even in motels while making day trips into the field or forest.

The ultimate losers are the very children that the rules are alleged to protect. Both Senator Johnson and I were privileged to participate in camp counseling as high school students. We know that the experience was valuable for us and believe that the camping experience was beneficial for the younger students that we helped to counsel as well.

It appears to me that some common sense needs to be applied to this issue. No organizational camp experience can occur without incurring any risk of one kind or another. The agency’s attempt to eliminate all risk by regulation will ultimately result in the elimination of the camping experience. Parents should be trusted to make responsible choices regarding the opportunities they want their children to experience. Part of that choice is to weigh the certain educational and cultural benefits against any potential safety or public health risk.

I will continue to work with the OHA staff and the owners and operators of our organizational camps to resolve these issues for the benefit of the children the camps serve as well as for all the people the camps employ. To do less will certainly result in the permanent loss of these camping experiences for our youth.