Senate President and Speaker Merkley Focus on Ethics Fix

Joint press release from Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Jeff Merkley 4/21/08:

Legislative Leaders to Continue Focus on Ethics Reform

SALEM””Legislative leaders announced today they would ask key committees of the House and the Senate to meet over the summer to continue work on the sweeping ethics reforms made by the 2007 Oregon Legislature.

As a first step, the presiding officers have asked Legislative Counsel to team with representatives of the Governor, Attorney General and the Department of Administrative Services to prepare a report to be presented at the at the first joint hearing. The report will include research into the concerns and actions taken by local government officials in response to implementation of the ethics reforms.

The joint legislative meetings, slated to begin by June 20, will be led by the House Elections, Rules and Ethics Committee and the Senate Rules and Executive Appointments Committee.

“Oregonians deserve open and transparent government, from the Governor’s office on down. And this law provides that openness,” said Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem/Gervais/Woodburn).

“Over the past two years we have enacted historic, bipartisan ethics reform. We must continue to fight for ethics and accountability to maintain Oregon’s progressive tradition of clean and transparent government,” said House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland).

Since the Watergate era, most public officials in Oregon have been required to file an annual Statement of Economic Interest. The 2007 Oregon Ethics Reform Act, and its companion bill, HB 2595, added about 800 additional public officials who are now required to file the form.

After the new rules were announced, over 97 percent of those required to file did so. To date, approximately 150 officials of the more than 5400 required to file have resigned instead of filling out the new forms, according to the State’s Government Ethics Commission.

“We overhauled Oregon’s ethics laws for the first time in 30 years and it’s natural for there to be some challenges implementing the changes we made,” said Courtney.

“Oregon’s smaller communities have been disproportionately affected by the changes we implemented with Oregon Ethics Reform Act and we’re committed to understanding why this has happened,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin), who chairs the Senate Rules and Executive Appointments Committee. “This unintentional outcome is a byproduct of the legislature’s motivation to create high and uniform standards of reporting across the state. The two percent of public officials who resigned have never had to disclose this information before and we need to consider their concerns while protecting the need for high standards.”

In particular, the legislature needs to know whether misinformation played a role in the resignations. For example, in press reports some officials said they feared mistakes in reporting or failure to report could result in a felony conviction, or that the names and addresses of their children might be posted on the Internet. Neither of those is true under the law.

“The process we are outlining today will allow us to get into these issues in preparation for the 2009 session. Going forward, it will be critically important for the Ethics Commission to communicate with public officials, train them about the new law and make sure they have enough time to acclimate to the new rules, especially for those people who were required to file for the first time,” said Rep. Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone), a member of the House Rules Committee and House Majority Leader. “Bad information was widespread and that definitely inflamed the situation.”

Merkley and Courtney agreed that the officials who resigned, many of them planning commissioners in small cities, will be missed. Overall, however, the legislative leaders said compliance with the new law was strong, but that they would continue to listen to the concerns of local officials.

“Some legitimate concerns have been raised. We want to delve into those issues, find solutions and move forward with one of the nation’s strongest reporting laws,” Merkley said. “We want to make sure we do not hamper the ability of citizens to serve their local communities as city councilors or planning commissioners. And that means we should take a thoughtful look at their concerns.”