Public Servants Flee Tough Oregon Ethics Laws The state is coping with a mass exodus of public officials who resigned in protest this spring after being told to release details about family members. They said the new financial disclosure law amounted to an invasion of privacy.
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Public Servants Flee Tough Oregon Ethics Laws

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Public Servants Flee Tough Oregon Ethics Laws

Public Servants Flee Tough Oregon Ethics Laws

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Oregon's legislature passed an ambitious ethics reform law last year. That came after a series of corruption scandals in the state and the country. But it had an unanticipated effect: Close to 200 public officials across the state quit after the law took effect this spring. The surprise resignations left many in the state stumped, but the ethics exodus made perfect sense to some.

From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ethan Lindsey reports.

ETHAN LINDSEY: Rural Oregonians say the urban part of the state has gone way too far on lots of policies - medical marijuana, physician-assisted suicide. Now there's an openly gay mayor in Portland.

Unidentified Man: People on the west side of the state may not be so in tune of a town of only 1,700. To them it might be just a small hick town and a bunch of rednecks and loggers. And for the most part, they're probably right.

LINDSEY: That's Tim McGuiness. He lives in Elgin, a small town in the far northeast corner of the state. And he says it was the state's new ethics reform that was the last straw for many lawmakers from rural and eastern Oregon. McGuiness 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 the country's farthest-reaching financial-disclosure law. At the time, it was hailed as a model for other states. The law forces officials to publicly expose where their income comes from. Plus, for the first time, officials were required to identify members of their extended family.

McGuiness says that's an invasion of privacy, and proves just how out of touch Portland lawmakers are with the regular rednecks in the rest of the state.

Mr. McGUINESS: I don't mean that people here are less intellectual, less intelligent, or not as savvy to the world around them but for the most part, they just, you know, they just want to keep to themselves.

LINDSEY: He stands in the front of his house, along a state highway. His kids play baseball in the field next door. McGuiness says it's personal freedom, that frontier sensibility that's led to the current revolt. He asks why people in Portland even care what his sister does for a living. Everyone that needs to know about his finances already does.

(Soundbite of metal ringing)

Unidentified Child: Nice hit.

Unidentified Woman #1: Nice hit.

LINDSEY: April 15th was the deadline for lawmakers to fill out the new financial-disclosure forms. The penalty for refusal was steep - up to $5,000. In the end, 190 local officials resigned or quit, and no place was harder hit than McGuiness's town of Elgin. In a single week, the town's entire planning commission and city council quit.

Elgin's makeshift City Hall is a portable building next to the freight railroad tracks.

Unidentified Woman #1: And this should show you how much our mayor loves our town. She's over here in tears.

LINDSEY: At the city council meeting the week before the deadline, Mayor Carmen Gentry softly sobbed when she signed her letter of resignation.

Ms. CARMEN GENTRY (Former Mayor, Elgin, Oregon): It just really breaks my heart that it has to come down to this.

LINDSEY: About a month after the mass resignations in Elgin, the county appointed an interim city council. But still, more than 100 public seats around the state remain empty. Many public officials, like former Elgin planning commissioner Tim McGuiness, say they're not even interested in getting their old jobs back - not unless the state legislature withdraws the law. And that's not likely to happen. Peggy Kerns is the director of the Center for Ethics in Government.

Ms. PEGGY KERNS (Director, Center for Ethics in Government): 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, important reasons to have a strong financial-disclosure law for lawmakers.

LINDSEY: In fact, 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 capitals, and those lawmakers are watching what's happening in Oregon with interest.

For NPR News, I'm Ethan Lindsey in Elgin, Oregon.

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