Sunshine law goes too far
Mayors, city managers, city councilors, planning commissioners and hundreds of volunteers involved in public service from one end of the state to the other have been doing some soul searching this week to decide to what extent they are willing to open their lives to public scrutiny.
That's because this week is the deadline for filing the new Statement of Economic Interest.
Public officials are in a dither because of the new reporting requirement, approved last year by the state Legislature. The law dramatically increases the level of financial disclosure required of public officials - including those who are not paid. They must now report any sources of income, the names of their relatives, and any ownership in real property or face a $5,000 fine. This personal information will be posted on the state Web site by 2010.
Although some municipalities and boards have provided similar disclosure for years, the new legislation is much more sweeping, making them mandatory and increasing the frequency to once a quarter.
City council and planning commission members in several small towns have resigned or threatened to resign because they believe the disclosures are too invasive and the fines too onerous, especially for people who donate their time and effort.
Some have even gone so far as to declare the law as the catalyst for potentially the 'largest wholesale loss of leadership' in Oregon history, and they have appealed to Gov. Ted Kulongoski to suspend the rule, which he has said goes well beyond his authority under the state's constitution.
We're all for open government and public disclosure, especially when it comes to shining light on special interests that may be shaping public policy. We're all for illuminating those activities that may be untoward, unethical or self-serving, like the time a few years ago that former house Majority Leader Wayne Scott, Rep. Bruce Hanna, and Sen. David Nelson went to Hawaii attend the Oregon Beer and Wine Association's conference.
To paint all public officials with the same brush and pre-emptively threaten them with exorbitant fines for failing to open their finances to public review is probably going too far. Posting those disclosures on the Internet where they may be used for nefarious purposes in an age where identity theft is a real concern is probably more sunlight than the public needs. For these kinds of positions, the law need be no more complicated than requiring public officials to disclose any financial conflicts of interest and agree not use their offices for personal gain.
Getting good people to serve in local government positions is already difficult and, if anything, the Legislature should enact laws to encourage greater participation. That's why we have long advocated that our state leaders increase legislative pay - so ordinary citizens can afford to serve, and so people like Happy Valley Rep. Mike Schaufler don't have to use campaign funds to buy beer.
Public service should not be unnecessarily bureaucratic, complicated or burdensome.
At the same time, whining and threatening to quit is no answer. Public officials are sworn to uphold the law, and until the law is changed, that's what they need to do. At the same time, legislators need to admit they made a dumb move and fix it as soon as possible, even if it means calling a special session.