Corruption Questions Rise Amid Public Records Bill
Senate Bill 609, introduced to the chamber last month by Senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), would require Oregonians requesting public records to justify their request and provide detailed information on what records they want and how they are being used. Sen. Johnson introduced the bill on behalf of outgoing state Representative Deborah Boone (D-Cannon Beach). Around the same time, emails surfaced that suggested Boone may have used the power of her office to do favors for family and raise campaign funds, despite announcing her retirement from public office.
In the course of an ongoing investigation by The Oregonian into the impact of campaign finance on environmental policy in Oregon, reporters requested Boone’s emails. These emails show exchanges with Ted Case, executive director of Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association (ORECA).
In January 2018, Case was seeking an exemption to the proposed cap-and-trade legislation that year for West Oregon Electric Cooperative, one of the smaller co-ops under ORECA. West Oregon provides power to Boone’s former district and to her hometown of Hamlet. Thirteen days after an email from Case telling Boone he and his board would “come by and see you,” Boone’s campaign account recorded a $500 donation from Case’s association.
Boone responded that “any checks that arrived were not a result of active fundraising on her part or had not been deposited yet when she announced her retirement.” She has also said she proposed the bill due to the expense incurred by the taxpayers to hire a member of the Legislative Counsel’s office to find and organize the documents.
Boone told reporters that this process would be easier if “[reporters] would just be honest and say, ‘This is what I’m trying to get at.’ I get that they want to be vague to capture everything, but maybe they don’t have to.”
Currently, Oregon law does not require such a justification when requesting public records like police reports, public contracts and workplace safety inspections, materials commonly used by academics, journalists, and other professionals who assess the quality of public institutions, helping to keep elected officials accountable to the public. Journalists have publicly criticized the bill, saying that they often don’t know what specific records exist before requesting them.
Reaction to reporting by The Oregonian and The Daily Astorian, as well as harsh criticism from the Astorian’s editorial board, seems to have deflated Boone and Sen. Johnson’s bill.
“If it’s going to be like this, I don’t want to do it,” Boone said, “I’m not going to die on my sword for this one.”
Public Harassment, Private Accountability
Senator Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Representative Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland), who lead the Capitol Culture Committee, recently introduced House Bill 2859 (HB 2859) to create a new Legislative Equity Office and establish “legal privilege” of confidentiality for not only those who report harassment, but also those accused of harassment and inappropriate behavior.
While HR2859 has some institutional support, having been born of the nonpartisan Oregon Law Commission and supported by the American Association of University Women (Oregon Chapter). It is opposed by Senator Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) and four others who work in the Capitol, three of whom have experienced harassment while working there. Sen. Gelser testified that the proposed confidentiality “might protect victims,” but would also “protect perpetrators.”
The Oregon Law Commission’s investigation began after the revelations of widespread harassment in the Capitol, including allegations that former Sen. Jeff Kruse inappropriately touched and harassed Sen. Gelser. Last month, a separate investigation by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) “found pervasive sexual harassment in the Capitol, made worse by an inconsistent and ineffective process for reporting and investigating complaints.”
The proposed Legislative Equity Office would not only handle all harassment complaints in the legislature, but would make those complaints private on the basis of the new confidentiality rules. Normally, Oregon employees can submit similar complaints to BOLI, which are kept as accessible public records. Under HR 2859, the details of complaints filed with the Legislative Equity Office would be kept confidential, not able to be retrieved by normal records requests procedures.
Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week, summarizing the bill, wrote “In other words, the bill would protect lawmakers from a repeat of the public embarrassment suffered when then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian released his damning findings in January.”
The Bend Bulletin’s editorial board, officially opposing the bill in an op-ed on February 21, evaluated the end results of the bill in much starker terms.
“The Harvey Weinsteins of the world couldn’t have done a better job keeping their behavior secret,” they wrote.
Community Colleges to Offer Four-Year Degrees
The Oregon Senate voted unanimously last Tuesday, Feb. 19 to approve Senate Bill 3, a proposal to allow Oregon’s 17 community colleges to offer both applied baccalaureate degrees (two-year extension programs for associate’s degrees) and four-year bachelor’s degrees. Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), who is sponsoring the bill, said SB 3 is “a small bill, but a huge bill,” that could reshape higher education in Oregon.
Senator Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) echoed Sen. Courtney’s point that empowering communities to make decisions about their education needs, as well as closing the gap between education at community colleges versus four-year universities, could be the beginnings of a “revolution” in higher education. Twenty-four other states have passed similar allowances for community colleges.
The goal of the bill is to create a process for community colleges, which currently have about 270,000 students statewide, to develop new programs by getting input from their community about employment needs and designing programs to fill those needs. Any new degree programs must be approved by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, a board which advises the governor, the legislature, and other officials on higher education (or post-secondary education) policy.
The fine details of how these programs would be integrated is still unclear, but Linn-Benton Community College President Greg Hamann estimated the process for approving a new program could take about a year. Hamann said LBCC isn’t necessarily going to jump into this new model, expressing that they “see the opportunities, but also have questions about it.”
The bill is now headed to the House for deliberation and a vote.
By Ian MacRonald