Public Servants Flee Tough Oregon Ethics Laws

Correction Aug. 27, 2008

The audio version of this story described the City Hall in Elgin, Ore., as "makeshift" and "portable." It is actually a permanent building constructed to house city offices.

The state of Oregon boasts what is probably the country's farthest-reaching ethics reform law. Corruption scandals in Oregon led to legislative action last year that requires public officials in that state to release their family members' financial records. State legislators touted the move as probably the country's farthest-reaching ethics reform law.

But nearly 200 public officials across the state quit after the law took effect this spring. The surprise resignations left many in the state bewildered.

The ethics exodus made perfect sense to rural residents outside the state's major cities. Rural Oregonians say the urban part of the state has gone way too far on lots of policies, including medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide. Many are also bothered by the fact that Portland has an openly gay mayor.

Tim McGinness, a resident of Elgin — a small town in the far northeast corner of the state — says the state's ethics reform bill was the last straw for many lawmakers from rural and eastern Oregon.

McGinness was the chairman of his city's planning commission, until he resigned in protest in April.

He says it all goes back to early last year, when Democratic state lawmakers signed off on a change to financial disclosure for public officials. At the time, it was hailed as a model for other states.

The law forces officials to publicly declare the sources of their income and those of their spouses. Plus, for the first time, officials are required to identify the names and addresses for all the members of their family.

McGinness says that's an invasion of privacy — and proves how out-of-touch Portland lawmakers are with the folks in the rest of the state.

"I don't mean the people here are less intellectual, less intelligent or not as savvy to the world around them," McGinness says. "But for the most part they just want to keep to themselves."

McGinness says it's personal freedom — that frontier sensibility — that's led to the current revolt.

McGinness says he and others believe the motivation for asking for the personal details of relatives is to learn what they do for a living. He wonders, for example, why people in Portland even care where his sister works.

'Breaks My Heart'

One hundred ninety local officials resigned or quit in the days before the April 15 deadline for lawmakers to fill out the new financial disclosure forms. The penalty for refusal was steep — up to $5,000.

No place was harder hit than McGinness' town of Elgin. In a single week, the town's entire planning commission and City Council quit.

At the City Council meeting the week before the deadline, Mayor Carmen Gentry softly sobbed when she signed her letter of resignation.

"It just really breaks my heart that it has to come down to this," Gentry said at the time.

About a month after the mass resignations in Elgin, the county appointed an interim City Council.

But more than 100 public seats around the state still remain empty.

Many public officials, says McGinness, are not interested in getting their old jobs back — not unless the state Legislature withdraws the law.

That's not likely to happen.

"I think the thing to not lose sight of for everybody involved in this Oregon law is the reason for it. There are logical, good and important reasons to have a strong financial disclosure law for lawmakers," according to Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government in Washington, D.C.

Kerns says she wants to see the other 49 states follow Oregon's lead and ramp up ethics laws.

Indeed, bulked-up ethics reform laws are under consideration in a number of state capitols. And those lawmakers are watching what's happening in Oregon with interest.

Ethan Lindsey reports for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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