The Office of Rural Policy may be shut down, but the state's department of unintended consequences was working overtime last week. The latest problem to crop up in that arena stems from the 11th-hour implementation of new ethics reporting requirements for a host of public officials across the state.
In late March, the entire planning commission in the city of Elgin resigned rather than face filing the new reports. In Grant County, one planning commissioner has resigned for the same reason, and he believes other volunteers will follow suit as the rules are fully established.
The reasons range from the kind of information that must be filed - relatives names, outstanding loans, sources of income - to the paperwork burden of quarterly filings. Of particular concern for some critics is the fact that by 2010, the state is required to post all filings online so that Internet users can readily access the reports.
The 2007 Legislature changed the ethics reporting law to require that posting and also expanded the requirement for Statements of Economic Interest (SEIs) from an array of elected and appointed officials. The roster of filers ranges from top state elected officials to city and county decision-makers. Not all local government committees must file, but planning commissioners are on the list.
Across the state, many officials already were filing ethics forms, but the requirement is new to 97 cities and six counties: Grant, Gilliam, Lake, Morrow, Sherman and Wheeler. The newcomers to the SEI filings had been able to opt out of reporting until now if a majority of their voters rejected ethics reforms back in the post-Watergate era.
The ethics laws have good intentions: to avoid self-dealing by the people who govern us. Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC), said the concept is simple: citizens should be able to determine if their elected or appointed officials are making decisions that will benefit them or their relatives.
He noted that "99.8 percent of people play the game straight up," but there have been cases where officials take advantage of their positions for personal gain. Financial disclosure laws are intended to deter that.
Advocates say the 2007 changes make the reporting rules consistent across the state. Because of the opt-out provision, reporting has been patchwork. In many cases, leaders in one community had to file, while those serving the city right next door did not. Having everyone follow the same rules is a matter of fairness, Bersin said.
But that rationale doesn't sit well in some rural communities, where volunteers contend that the new reports are both too invasive and too much work. They also worry about penalties for missed filings - with fines starting at $10 a day but potentially growing up to $5,000. As Sen. David Nelson (R-Pendleton) told the Wallowa County Chieftain, "I think we need to give people who volunteer credit for trying to do the right thing. I think the law went overboard."
Meanwhile, a very real concern remains about manpower drain in the rural counties, where the pool of volunteers already is shallow. Elected or appointed officials who don't feel comfortable about reporting their income sources, the names of their relatives, and their property holdings, likely will find other ways to volunteer, but city and county governments may be hard-pressed to replace them.
Bersin believes the current backlash stems in part from unfamiliarity with the process. "There's always a concern when additional regulation comes on for folks," he said. He also believes people are misinformed about the extent of the information that has to be filed; for example, lender information is only required if there's a direct connection to the business of the city or county government.
However, the state must bear the responsibility for the confusion surrounding the new rules. There's been little in the way of detailed information given out at the local level so far. The first filing deadline is April 15, but the new forms didn't hit the mail until April 1. That's cutting it pretty close. Bersin told the Eagle last week to expect "grace periods" as the law goes into effect, but that's yet another message that isn't getting out to the prospective filers. Even if it did, it's not clear how many local residents would accept "trust me" when such weighty penalties hang in the balance.
A state trainer is expected to visit sometime in the coming weeks to visit some of the Eastern Oregon jurisdictions that are new to reporting and help them through the process. Clearly, such help is needed - but it's showing up a little late in the game.
Against that backdrop of confusion and concern, it's worth noting that while the resignations may be an unintended consequence, they were not totally unexpected. The possibility of a chilling effect on volunteerism arose during the legislative deliberations. With that issue already on the table, the state should have been better prepared to work with local officials to ensure a more orderly implementation of any new requirements. That might not have resolved everyone's qualms, but it could have remedied some concerns and perhaps kept some volunteers on board a while longer.