Kitzhaber-Hayes: Oregon’s checks and balances aren’t working

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

Oregon has been watching as a potential scandal involving Gov. John Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes has slowly emerged. The governor has resigned and while we don’t know yet what the outcome of the investigations will be, we do know enough already to see that the current system of checks and balances isn’t working.

The most glaring place that it’s not working is in public records requests. Gov. Kitzhaber’s administration successfully stonewalled media requests for as long as seven months, and no one did anything about it. They stonewalled Willamette Week, The Oregonian and the Associated Press. Back in October, The Oregonian tried to at least get a log of the requests so they could figure out how long requests were taking — but “the governor’s office wouldn’t provide that information.”

The Oregonian reported “Oregon’s public records law requires public agencies to make records available as quickly as reasonable. A state manual on the law suggests 10 working days as sufficient for most requests but ‘more time may be required under some circumstances.’” Seven months is long way from 10 working days.

Both The Oregonian and Willamette Week reported that other state agencies were much more responsive to records requests than the governor’s office.

So where are the checks and balances here? When there are questions of the state’s chief executive, who makes sure those get answered? Who makes sure the governor follows state law regarding public records requests? A major part of the reason that we don’t know yet whether there was any wrong-doing on the part of the governor or First Lady is because the governor’s office stonewalled requests for information. As the Eugene Register-Guard noted back in December, the reason the full extent of the Cylvia Hayes scandal is not known is “because the governor’s office has been slow in responding to requests for additional documents.”

Transparency and freely available public records on the dealings of government are the “oxygen” of healthy government. It’s why the sunshine laws came into being in the wake of Watergate.

The governor’s office stonewalling certainly won’t help improve the “F” grade that Oregon got in Public Access to Information on the Oregon Corruption Risk Report Card. The report card is produced by the State Integrity Investigation – a partnership of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Oregon needs to do better.

Another gap that’s been exposed in Oregon’s system of checks and balances is the limitations of Oregon Government Ethics Commission. They may be able to do many things, but objectively investigating the governor or First Lady is a stretch. Beyond their resource limitations, there is the obvious issue that all seven members of the commission were appointed by the governor: “Four members are appointed by the Governor upon recommendation by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Oregon House and Senate. The Governor selects three members directly.”

The other major gap that’s been exposed is the paralysis of Oregon’s attorney general. She has been criticized in the local media because they say she “sat on her hands” and “isn’t following the law.” Whether she was constrained by partisan politics, by Oregon law or by Oregon’s Constitution, the end result was that it was one more check and balance that wasn’t functioning.

There is an opportunity in the current Legislature to address the shortcomings that have been exposed. The current checks and balances may have assumed a vibrant two-party system, but Oregon now needs to modernize our checks and balances to function in a one-party rule environment.

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