Resignations rock Banks council

New rules - Trio of city councilors balks at new law requiring disclosing personal information to ethics panel

Three Banks city councilors resigned Monday amid concerns about a disclosure form required by new state ethics rules.

The disclosures have been filed by most elected officials in Oregon since the Oregon Government Ethics Commission was established in 1974, but six counties and 97 small cities, including Banks, have opted out of the program until now.

Last year, the state legislature changed the rules requiring those cities to begin filing the form this year. The new requirements have sent ripples through rural Oregon, where at least 82 officials have stepped down from their posts in protest.

In Banks, councilors Jason Short, Ron Kemper, Dan Keller and Craig Stewart submitted resignations to the city over the weekend.

The four resignations would have left the city without a quorum, but Stewart withdrew his resignation Monday.

Stewart wasn't available for comment Tuesday, but Banks City Manager Jim Hough speculated that leaving the city without a quorum played into his decision to stay on.

'Best I can figure is that he's concerned about the information in the report but is concerned about putting the council into some dire straits and so he reconciled his concerns and elected to withdraw his resignation,' Hough said.

The law requires councilors and planning commission members to disclose their five most significant sources of household income and name family members and property holdings. It also requires that debts of more than $1,000 are disclosed.

Those disclosures left Jason Short, who prosecutes felony crimes as an associate district attorney for Washington County, in a sticky situation.

Short enjoyed his time on the council, but his occupation doesn't exactly make him many friends.

'There are some guys that are in prison that I'm sure would like to get out and know some of that information,' Short said.

The law doesn't require the identification of primary residence, bank loans or retail credit accounts. It also doesn't require filers to name the relationship they have with a family member. Instead, it merely requires a name.

Ron Bersin, the executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commisison, said that much of the information included on the form is already public.

Bersin said the filings are paper documents, stored in Salem. To review them requires a public records request and a trip down Interstate 5.

'The exposure isn't as much as some of the other documents that are out there. There are no dollars in here, there's no financial information,' Bersin said.

Bersin added that most contentious issue, by far, is the requirement to disclosure family members' names.

But Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle said that the disclosure of those names is useful stuff.

Waffle asked about a hypothetical situation where Joe Councilor is considering a bid on a public project from a construction company that employs his son.

'Is Joe really removed?' Waffle asked. 'Those kinds of things came up all the time.'

In the past several weeks, scores of local officials from across the state have stepped down rather than comply with Tuesday's deadline to file the disclosure forms.

No other officials in western Washington County have resigned.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, responding to the mass resignations, has started a work group on the topic.

Anna Richter Taylor, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that while Kulongoski feels Oregonians deserve transparency from their public officials, he wants to find out if the law has struck the right balance between officials' private lives and their public roles.

But only the legislature can change the rules, so whatever comes out of the work group won't go into effect until after the 2009 legislative session.

Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, said that the league will be involved in the work group, but he said no specific fixes have been floated so far.

'The league is considering a shift away from the public official's family to something that holds the official accountable,' Winkels said.

For his part, Short will continue to play a role in Banks city government outside of city council. He also hopes to communicate his concerns to the governor's work group.

'I don't want to just abandon everything,' he said. 'I want to still try to help out where I can.'

Editor's note:An earlier version of this story assigned a comment to Ron Bersin that was in error. He did not say that the state was "inviting" identity theft by collecting data on one form. Instead, he said the opposite: that the form is functionally similar to other disclosure forms, and since it is stored in paper form in Salem, it is less likely to be abused. The News-Times regrets the error.