by Karl Kurtz
[Note: Based on additional information received, this post replaces an original version published on April 28.]
A new ethics law in Oregon appears to have caused 150 local government officials to leave their jobs rather than comply with the rules, according to the Los Angeles Times. The provision that has drawn the most ire is a requirement that all government officials, even volunteer members of certain boards or commissions, disclose not only their sources of income and those of their spouses and adult household member but also the names and addresses of all children and siblings who are not members of their household.
Whenever new ethics laws or rules are debated, it is often alleged that strict ethics codes will drive some incumbents from office and hinder recruitment of candidates for office. Aside from occasional anecdotes about someone stepping down because of new rules or a potential candidates saying that they don't want to lose their privacy, there is scant evidence that this actually occurs. So is the fact of 150 local government officials quitting their jobs in Oregon rather than comply with the new law a big deal and evidence that this measure went too far?
According to the story, Oregon Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski is concerned about the problem and has convened a work group to review the rules, citing the need for "balance between a public official's public responsibility and their private life."
My colleague, Peggy Kerns, is quoted in the story as saying that the Oregon law is unique in its extent and reach. Russ Kelley, spokesman for the Oregon speaker's office, says that the financial disclosure requirements for public officials have been in place for several decades without any problem. The only thing different about financial disclosure in the new law is that it expands these provisions to a number of local governments that were previously exempt and adds the disclosure of the names of adult relatives. While 150 or so local officials, mostly volunteer members of commissions, have resigned rather than file the forms, thousands of others have complied with the law.
Kelley points out that commissions made up of volunteer appointees often have major impacts on public policy and should be held no less accountable than paid, elected public officials. Nonetheless, he said that legislative leaders are considering the need to make some adjustments to the new rules in the next session.
Peggy Kerns provides this justification for financial disclosure laws based on an NCSL web page on the subject:
When a person is elected to public office and swears to uphold the public trust, he or she gives up a certain amount of anonymity. It goes with the job. Transparency and openness - a movement that is worldwide, as well as in the United States - requires government meetings to be posted, votes to be recorded and certain aspects of an elected official's personal life to be exposed to the public.
Financial disclosure laws are part of this movement. All but three states - Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, require statewide elected officials to file personal financial disclosure, also called statements of economic interest. Public servants open their books, to a certain extent, for mass inspection. The public interest lies in whether the elected official is voting his or her own personal financial interest in making public policy.
Most states require lawmakers to state their occupation, the sources of their income, the names of corporations in which they hold a position such as director or officer, the addresses of their property, the names of creditors and debtors and names of businesses in which they hold a financial interest. More than 2/3 of states mandate the release of information about each member's spouse and dependent children.
Practically every jurisdiction has conflict of interest rules that require public officials to recuse themselves when they have a direct financial interest in an issue. In my observation, most public officials honor those rules and are careful to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
In my volunteer life I serve on the Boulder County (Colorado) Planning Commission, so I have tried to puzzle out the Oregon situation as if it applied to me. What business is it of anyone that I have brothers who live in New York, Massachusetts and California and adult children who live in Colorado and Hawaii? In my case it seems as if this information is not relevant and that I should be allowed to keep this information private.
But if one of my brothers were a developer in the county and had matters before the planning commission, that information would be relevant to the public and the county commissioners who appoint me to this position. I ought to disclose it and would certainly do so under our conflict of interest requirements, as I and my colleagues regularly do whenever there is even a question of having a financial interest in a commission decision.
Is Oregon's further step of requiring financial disclosure statements including the names of relatives needed? On the one hand, I wouldn't have any problem with providing this information. On the other hand, our county, like those communities that have been affected by the Oregon law, is not all that big. Lots of people know me. If I failed to disclose my conflicts of interest when they were relevant, someone would know about it. So I'm not sure I see the necessity of the general financial disclosure provision.
Finding the balance that Gov. Kulongoski refers to between public responsibility and a right to privacy is never an easy thing.