Honesty in government: exercises in futility?

Interesting, that:

Help wanted: public servants willing to disclose major sources of income, business interests, real estate holdings and the names of their adult relatives.

Sayonara and good luck with that, said some 150 elected and appointed Oregon officeholders who walked away from their public service gigs this month rather than disclose personal data. Many said they were particularly disturbed by the new requirement — apparently unique to Oregon — that they name so many family members.

Resignations struck dozens of cities.

In rural eastern Oregon, the revolt against the state’s new conflict-of-interest disclosure law obliterated some city governments.

In Elgin, the mayor, all six City Council members and all five planning commissioners opted to quit rather than file. Lexington lost its entire council, Enterprise its five-member Planning Commission. Banks lost four council members, North Powder three; Rogue River, Umatilla and Stanfield lost two each.

Choose your poison: punch line or pulpit, there are plenty of clichés to put here.

Stuart Glasscock (Los Angeles Times) brings us the news from Oregon, where an updated ethics law has brought local government to its knees.

For nearly 35 years, many public officials had to file Statements of Economic Interest that disclosed officeholders’ sources of income, property holdings and business interests. But 97 communities had been exempt from it. Last year, the Legislature voted to end those exemptions — and expanded the law to include a provision calling for the naming of all adult relatives.

The law now applies to about 5,000 officeholders — mayors, city council members, planning commissioners, school district superintendents and financial officers — said Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The deadline for submitting information was April 15, and 150 officials had not filed, in effect notifying the agency that they were resigning, Bersin said.

‘Tis a strange intersection, I suppose, where the broad concepts of government and people meet. Such a nexus is inevitable in a democracy, so perhaps it seems strange to think that we should need reminding, periodically, that our elected and appointed government officials are, in fact, people too. And yet we need reminding, because viewed from afar, a strict ethics law might seem a good idea. Make the information as basic as possible; don’t let officials hide behind obscure classifications that only make sense to them. This is what we want, what we think you should have to give us in order to be our servants.

And yet our politicians balk. The indignity of public service these days is tremendous. Leaping through flaming hoops, shoveling tons of horseshit, arguing about lapel pins or whose pastor hates America more. While the national arena seems customized for bombast and pandering, local government is something of a quieter, more dignified affair.


Local politics, indeed, can teach a good deal about sleaze and outright crass stupidity. In 1990, a GOP upstart accused his Democratic opponent—a longtime public servant in the education sector—of molesting children and won by a narrow margin. Later in the decade, amid the family-values push in Oregon, Republicans would send to the gubernatorial ticket a man whose publishing business included the local strip club directory. There was this great story about the second mayor of Federal Way running around, drunk, in his underwear, with a rifle ….

But, still. Small-town voters often think highly of their small-town officials. Broad denunciations of politicians as crooks are reserved for the legislature and the governor, and the national politicians. And, also, the local Democrats. So while the idea of a strong ethics rule sounds good from afar, it doesn’t look nearly so attractive up close:

Basic city services — water, power, police, and fire — are being managed as usual, but no new decisions can be made until council majorities are formed. To fill voids, county commissioners will appoint enough council members to make quorums.

New public servants are needed all over the state — from the coast to the Cascades to eastern farm and logging communities. Public officials resigned over the disclosure forms in Canyon City, Keizer, Sweet Home, Harrisburg, Monmouth, Tangent, Pilot Rock, Prairie City and Summerville.

Officials are scrambling. City managers are circulating ads for replacements.

In Summerville, 226 miles east of Portland, four City Council members gave up their posts instead of their personal details. One longtime resident and former mayor called it a heartbreaking day for local government.

“It will be hard to fill these positions,” said Ron Caswell. “I would not serve under these new rules, absolutely not. They don’t need to know who my children are, who my parents are.”

It is hard to imagine that this is just a case of the large (state) crushing the small (local). After all, someone, somewhere, had to suggest to the legislature that this was a good idea. Industry lobbies? Grassroots movements? Governor Kulongoski, in a letter to public officials statewide, agreed that there should be some balance between public responsibility and personal privacy. Of course, he acknowledged this after the fact. Apparently, the whole debacle caught everyone off guard; the idea that listing one’s relatives in a publicly accessible database might concern some people seems to have slipped just about everybody’s minds.

One thought on “Honesty in government: exercises in futility?

  1. These people would have to submit the same information to pass the background check for a concealed weapons permit. Their positions allow them to target more people than any gun ever could… Just makes you wonder why everyone is so afraid of showing where all the connections have been all these years.

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