By Ethan Schowalter-Hay
The entire planning commission of the City of Elgin resigned Thursday, March 20th, rather than consent to new ethics requirements taking effect this year.
"As volunteers in a small community, they all resigned rather than have the state post their personal and financial information on the Internet, and further having the state threaten them with fines and a Class C felony for protecting their privacy," said Elgin City Administrator Joe Garlitz.
A 2007 amendment to Chapter 244 of the Oregon Revised Statutes means that all public officials in Union and Wallowa counties, for the first time, will need to submit a Statement of Economic Interest to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.
As the decision of the Elgin planners demonstrates, the change is not without controversy. An informational meeting has been called for Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the Misener Conference Room at 1001 Fourth Street. At that time, Tammy Hedrick, a trainer with OGEC, will discuss the issue and answer questions.
ORS 244.050 mandates that, among other positions, all elected officials, planners and administrators/managers at the city and county levels comply with the filing rule -- or suffer civil penalty.
Most such officials in Oregon have had to submit the statements since 1974 -- including in La Grande, Baker City and Union, and Union and Wallowa counties -- but 97 communities and six counties have been exempt, until now.
In Northeast Oregon, Cove, Elgin, Enterprise, Imbler, Island City, Joseph, Lostine, North Powder, Summerville, Ukiah and Wallowa are newly affected.
The disclosures relate to the economic interests of the public officials and their relatives or members of their household. They need to be filed by April 15, every year by those holding office on that date. The same people must submit a Quarterly Public Official Disclosure on the 15th of each month following the quarter.
In the economic interest statements, respondents must identify the source of any of their, their relatives' or a member of their household's income above $1,000 -- but not the amount itself.
The statements also address property holdings, shared business with lobbyists, honoraria, certain types of debt and investments, etc.
According to Hedrick, the information submitted in the economic statements is not yet posted online, but the commission is mandated to do so by 2010.
This morning, Garlitz predicted more fallout from the legislation in other sectors of Elgin city government.
In an interview prior to last night's planning commission resignations, Garlitz and Elgin Mayor Carmen Gentry expressed concern about the requirements' effect on volunteer positions.
"What's going to happen is that everyone is going to resign because they are all volunteers and don't want to file this paperwork," said Gentry.
"What's really scary about the April 15 deadline are the penalties, and who's going to risk getting a Class C felony for a volunteer public office?"
Garlitz said the information should not be made available online.
"If it was kept confidential with the ethics commission, that's one thing," he said, "but we don't want it on the Internet."
Gentry said, "This bill was pushed through under the radar."
She and Garlitz also argued that state law and city charter already structure against corruption and that the financial statements burden municipal bookkeeping.
In a guest column in this week's Observer, Marc Stauffer, a planning commissioner in Enterprise, argued against the "Nazi Germany-style 'Ministry of Information' gathering tactic' of ORS 244.050.
"I understand and even applaud the efforts of the Legislature to curb governmental corruption," Stauffer wrote. "But is it right to drive from office those uncompensated volunteers that give freely of themselves in an effort to better the communities they live in?"
Cove City Councilor Jim Lundy said the new legislation functions as a formal reminder of public office's code of conduct.
"There's something we need to remember," he said. "Rules are made for people who break them ... These things, to me, are common-sense type things."
Most public officials, he explained, use sound ethical judgment when it comes to voting on issues they may have some personal or financial stake in -- if so, often choosing to abstain from the vote.
"It's up to us (as councilors) to be ethical and above reproach," Lundy said. "But because some aren't, they had to make these rules."
He added, "It's to remind people -- but (ideally) you shouldn't have to remind people to be ethical."
In addition to the March 25 information session, questions about the rules may be directed to OGEC at firstname.lastname@example.org
The League of Oregon Cities has also addressed some of the more frequently asked questions in a document available at its website, www.orcities.org.
This story reprinted with the permission of The Observer.