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 in recent weeks to decide to what extent they are willing to open their lives to public scrutiny.
That's because last week was the deadline for filing the new Statement of Economic Interest in Oregon. And it impacted close to 1,000 officials throughout the state who previously were not required to file the forms.
Fortunately, because of concerns about the new rule, legislators last week decided to go back and see if they liked what they created. Various key state leaders, including representatives from both Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Attorney General Hardy Myers' offices, will team up on a report about the situation. Joint legislative committee meetings should begin by June 20.
Perhaps then they can also implement a more meaningful change, and work to limit the way that legislators are allowed to use campaign contributions, which is still largely unrestricted.
Public officials were 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.
Around Oregon, some 100 city council, planning commission members and others resigned because they believed the disclosures were too invasive and the fines too onerous, especially for people who donate their time and effort.
Some even went 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 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 to 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 to 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 supported the notion 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.
We are glad to see they have taken a step in the right direction.