Protest - Planning panel can't vote following latest fallout from new ethics law rules

The Banks Planning Commission was supposed to meet and discuss the city's effort to expand its Urban Growth Boundary on Tuesday evening.

But the volunteer city panel didn't have the required three voting members present and was forced to adjourn.

The aborted meeting was just the latest fallout from a new state ethics law that prompted about 150 local officials to resign in the past month.

Two weeks ago, three Banks city councilors and a planning commissioner resigned in protest over new state rules requiring in-depth conflict-of-interest disclosure forms.

Kevin Sturmer stepped down from the planning panel, which has five voting members, because he felt the required disclosures were too invasive.

'It's been very hard to get people to step up and join and that was without the paperwork,' said Sturmer. 'I get one physical exam a year and it's from my doctor not the state.'

While the disclosures have been filed by most elected officials in Oregon since 1974, 97 small cities like Banks have opted out of the program until now.

Mike Lyda, former Banks mayor, doesn't think legislators intended to foul up small-town politics. But all the same, he doubts that the pain of resignations is worth the data collected on the forms.

'I think I know what the state's after, but it seems a bit like a Big-Brother action to me,' Lyda said, 'Say some council member is on the take. Are they going to honestly report that they are?'

Supporters of the law say they simply want public officials to disclose relationships that could present a conflict of interest with their government duties.

So far, resignations have been rare in Washington County, where many officials were already filling out the forms before the new law went into effect.

Cornelius Planning Commissioner Sheila Griffie resigned, but the city hasn't lost any other officials. No one has resigned in Forest Grove or Gaston.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski put together a workgroup shortly after the resignations flooded in to figure out what, if anything, can be done to lessen the sense that Salem bureaucrats are trying to snoop in the private affairs of civic volunteers.

But whatever fixes they hammer out, they won't become law until 2009 at the soonest. The wait may be a killer in Banks.

'Small towns usually have some difficulty finding volunteers to fill spaces,' Lyda said.

With a population of about 1,500, Banks city boosters are constantly hunting to fill the seats of various advisory boards.

'For whatever reason in Banks when you have a councilor drop off the council it's taken a little time to get people to step forward and get appointed,' said City Manager Jim Hough.

Hough and Mayor Teri Branstitre (who both filed the state disclosure form) are trying to fill the new vacancies.

'We're moving on, but we're taking it one step at a time basically,' Hough said.

By requiring part-time, unpaid committee members to disclose relatives, sources of family income and debts over $1,000, Lyda says the drawbacks of volunteering will outweigh any net benefit for even more citizens.

'It's bad enough on families when you volunteer,' Lyda said. 'They don't get to see you two or three or four hours a week.'

'But now, all your information is on the Internet,' said Lyda, who said he wouldn't fill the form out if he was still mayor.

His wife, Teresa, retained her spot on the planning commission, however, but he said her decision was a tough one.

The city council managed to keep a majority of its members, but the planning commission, which already had two vacancies before Sturmer resigned, now lacks the quorum needed to vote, just as it takes on the UGB expansion, already a Herculean task for a small city with a staff of less than 10.

Sturmer said that the city doesn't have enough empty lots inside its boundaries to accommodate new school buildings or new businesses. If the work of the planning commission is delayed because of the resignations, everyone in Banks will lose out.

'It could really cripple the town,' Sturmer said. 'If this is delayed, [businesses] could look at some other location.'

Hough is a little more hopeful. He thinks the city can find volunteers to fill the commission and get to work by the commission's next meeting.

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