The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is discussing potential state ethics reforms and plans to deliver recommendations in April for legislation that could be introduced in 2017.

For example, the commission’s executive director Ron Bersin said the agency might ask the state to make it easier to take the most serious cases to court-like hearings. Earlier this year, The Oregonian reported the ethics commission had settled all cases since 2008. Bersin said a major reason for this is the losing party in a contested ethics case pays the prevailing party’s legal costs.

“We’re the only state agency that I know of that has to do that,” Bersin said, and the commission cannot afford to cover the fees.

“It seems that the public would like us ... rather than settling, to take on contested cases,” Bersin said.

The commission is also continuing to monitor the impact of a bill passed in the 2015 which shortened the time frame for commission investigators to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with a full investigation from 135 days to 30 days. Bersin said the main question is whether that is enough time for the commission’s two investigators to gather enough information to qualify as a “substantial basis,” per state law, to launch a full investigation.

The short time frame can also pose logistical challenges, given the commission has a staff of fewer than a dozen employees. This fall, staff needed approval to launch investigations while Bersin was on vacation. “I was approving preliminary reviews on the top of the Pueblo Mountains in Eastern Oregon, on an iPad,” Bersin said.

Some potential changes fall under the category of housekeeping. For example, Bersin said the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the state’s $50 limit on lobbyists’ gifts to public officials violated the constitutional right to free speech. A state prohibition on public officials accepting gifts of more than $50 remains in place. However, the statute limiting lobbyists’ gifts was never changed.

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