- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The Oregonian, Dec. 7, on more transparency in public meeting laws

Emails and texts speed communication, helping numerous people who may be miles away come together quickly for a conversation.

In almost real time, numerous people can simultaneously share information, answer questions and in some cases, make decisions.

Sounds an awful lot like a meeting, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. And though Oregon’s public meeting laws currently don’t define it that way, it’s long-past time that legislators update the definition of “meet,” ”meeting,” and “deliberation” in a 43-year-old law created when our most advanced level of public communication was the fax machine.

Many city and county counsels had hoped a recent Oregon Supreme Court decision would provide that clarity for their elected officials once and for all. Yet the court avoided the issue of whether digital conversations count as actual meetings when it ruled last month on a convoluted case out of Lane County.

The original lawsuit contended, among a number of issues, that a series of group and one-on-one emails among three Lane County commissioners and administrators constituted a public meeting with a quorum of the board.

Former Lane County Commissioner Rob Handy had filed the suit against Lane County and three other commissioners. He’d argued that the other commissioners violated the law as they deliberated through emails and phone calls whether to release a letter accusing him of ethical and campaign finance violations.

His argument was that the group, including three of the five commissioners, had worked together in private to discuss releasing a public record.

When the suit ultimately ended up in the Oregon’s Court of Appeals last year, that three-judge panel ruled that in fact, a series of emails among a quorum of those subject to public meeting laws can achieve the same end as a more traditional, face-to-face gathering.

Judge Chris Garrett, who wrote the opinion, noted the Legislature’s explicit language of the law was “that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”

The Lane County case has since been remanded back to circuit court and could eventually end up back in appeals court - potentially providing clarity again. However, what’s simplest would be for lawmakers to address the definition this coming session and protecting the public’s right to transparency in world with increasing options for communication.

Public officials need the guidance. While some city and county attorneys have said they warn their council and commission members against hitting “reply all” to emails - and some ban so-called “serial meetings” - others say a meeting can only take place contemporaneously.

Intent is a slippery issue. It’s true many well-meaning public officials could get themselves in trouble when they shoot out group emails or texts regarding their work. No better reason than to make this rule clear and a regular part of municipalities’ training on public records law.

Of the many fixes needed to our statute, this one update - attempted but failed once before - is necessary and overdue. That’s especially true considering lawmakers’ current battle cries for accountability.

If lawmakers ignore this common sense catch-up of our meetings law, they ignore the issue of transparency.


The (La Grande) Observer, Dec. 12, on lead contamination in Oregon’s National Guard armories

A National Guard armory is a fixture with historic overtones located in many big and small towns across the nation. In rural Oregon, National Guard armories are often the newest and seemingly most high-tech structures in a small community. Armories are rightly viewed as dual-use - for the public and citizen-soldiers - structures that serve the entire community.

That is why the recent series by the Portland Oregonian regarding lead contamination in many armories across the state is so troubling. What is even more troubling being that state Guard officials knew about the potential danger and did not respond to the situation in a rapid manner. According to the Oregonian report, hundreds of armories across the nation - including many in Oregon - are contaminated by lead from bullets fired inside armory weapons ranges.

The Defense Department and, apparently, the National Guard Bureau were aware about the contamination situation for nearly 20 years.

Many of these armories - including facilities situated on the Interstate 84 corridor to Idaho - hosted community events that included young children. In one armory situated on the Oregon coast, young school students held sleepovers at an armory and slept on a floor that contaminated with lead.

Without a doubt, there will be excuses delivered as to why the Guard did not respond to the potential lead contamination issue is a prompt matter but, at the end of the day, those excuses are to going to carry any weight. The National Guard - especially in Oregon - amassed a great deal of public gratitude during the global war on terror and it deserved every bit of it. Now, however, that public gratitude has been squandered because of apparent bureaucratic negligence and mindlessness.

Guardsmen and their families across America and in Oregon were foolishly put at risk. And let’s be perfectly clear, this situation had nothing whatsoever to do with the brave men and women who serve in individual Guard units across Oregon and the nation. No, the buck on this calamity stops with top officials in both Oregon and in Washington, D.C. And they need to start being accountable regarding his crisis immediately.

But once the usual finger-pointing is completed, the question is: What next? Taxpayers, families and serving Guardsmen deserve answers and they also warrant an explanation regarding what is happening to fix the problem. The institution that can do that is The Congress. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution outlines who oversees the militia. It isn’t the President and it isn’t the Defense Department. It is The Congress.

Congress must immediately establish a committee to consider this issue, seek answers and then ensure proper steps are taken to lower the contention threat. That means, as well, that Oregon’s elected leaders need to get involved as well.

Knowing about a problem is one thing. Knowing about it and then delaying action on it is shameful.


The East Oregonian, Dec. 12, on addressing problems with Oregon’s pension system

Addressing Oregon’s annual Leadership Summit a year ago, Gov. Kate Brown made no mention of the biggest financial crisis facing state government: PERS, the underfunded, bloated retirement system for public employees.

Nada. Zilch.

A year later and a month after being elected governor in her own right, Brown spoke again to 1,200 leaders from business, government and academia gathered in Portland. She mentioned PERS once. She used the rest of her seven-minute speech to lecture Oregon’s business community about its responsibilities to the state.

Gov. Brown continues to proclaim that the courts have left her no constitutional options for reducing the pension program’s $22 billion deficit. That’s nonsense, of course. State Sens. Betsy Johnson and Tim Knopp have put forth several ideas, most of which passed scrutiny from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel.

Now, another state leader has weighed in.

Katy Durant served for 11 years on the Oregon Investment Council, a panel of citizens that sets investment policy for the state’s $69 billion public trust fund portfolio, which includes PERS, the Common School Fund and the State Accident Insurance Fund.

Durant retired from the board last week, but not before she offered a warning and a list of sensible solutions to the PERS crisis. According to The Oregonian, Durant wrote Gov. Brown, challenging her to show “bold leadership” on PERS. Without that, Durant wrote: “This house of cards will quickly collapse, leaving Oregon in a fiscal crisis.”

“Failure to act quickly and decisively will result in a severe imbalance” between the pension fund’s growing liability and the state’s ability to meet it, Durant wrote. She then offered several proposals. Among them:

-Increase the full retirement age for public employees from 58 to 67 to match Social Security.

-Move elected officials out of PERS and into a 401(k) type system to eliminate the conflict of interest in voting for their own benefits.

-Reduce the assumed rate of return on fund investments to a more realistic level.

-Require public employees to contribute to their pension plan.

-Make annual debt payments of about $1 billion.

Durant’s proposals - along with those by Johnson and Knopp - deserve thorough consideration by the governor and lawmakers. These reforms would help ensure the long-term sustainability of PERS and allow our schools and local governments to better address current needs.

Doing nothing - Gov. Brown’s default position on this matter and too many others - is unacceptable and would amount to an abdication of her responsibility as our state’s chief executive.


The Bend Bulletin, Dec. 9, on fighting voter fraud

If there’s one thing certain about voter fraud, it’s this: There’s not much research into how much fraud there actually is.

It’s time that changed.

Oregon would be a good place to begin. According to an article in The Bulletin by reporter Taylor W. Anderson, state Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, and James Buchal, a lawyer and Republican from the Portland area, have filed a potential ballot measure with the Secretary of State’s Office that would amend the constitution to require proof of citizenship to register to vote. The measure also would allow all current registrations to expire in two years so that all who hope to vote in Oregon would have to re-register, with proper identification. In some cases the state would be required to issue copies of Oregon birth certificates for free.

That’s a lot of work for county clerks and the Secretary of State’s Office, and it would be a hassle for the more than 2.5 million voters currently registered in the state. It may or may not be necessary.

A 2012 Pew Center on the States study of voter registration found problems, though they stem from things other than fraud. Research into voter registration fraud generally comes from studies of particular elections after the fact.

It may well be that the number of cases of fraud reported are a tiny fraction of voter frauds committed. Or not. But without studies, no one knows for sure.

The first step in fixing a problem should be to find out if Oregon has one. Would the proposed change in voter registration accomplish anything?

Oregon lawmakers should ask if it is possible to do a more extensive study of fraud in Oregon. Even if it is not possible, it may expose weaknesses in the current system that should be addressed. As the Pew study noted, most states lack the modern data matching techniques used by business.

Can Oregon do more? Lawmakers should ask.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Dec. 8, on the closure of a state psychiatric hospital

Gov. Kate Brown’s plan to close the Junction City psychiatric hospital to help fill a $1.7 billion gap in the state budget came as a shock to just about everybody - the people who run the hospital, state legislators, patients’ families and the Junction City mayor and council.

This isn’t the best idea she’s ever had.

For starters, the taxpayers have shelled out $130 million for the facility, which is not yet two years old and employs 330 people. These same taxpayers are already in an ugly mood about the more than $700 million wasted on projects such as the still-unbuilt Columbia River Crossing bridge, the Cover Oregon insurance exchange, the first attempt at rebuilding U.S. Highway 20, and the state’s dubious Business Energy Tax Credit program.

Chief among the flaws in Brown’s proposal is that it hinges on removing people from the state mental health system and dumping them on community health care systems - which are already stretched to the breaking point.

Brown estimates that closing the hospital would save the state about $34.5 million a year, mostly from employee wages and benefits. None of those savings are earmarked for community mental health facilities.

The Junction City hospital currently houses 81 patients. Most - 46 - have been judged by a court to be guilty except for reason of insanity. Of these people, 21 have committed violent offenses requiring mandatory prison sentences under Measure 11.

Thirty-three patients are civil commitments, meaning they have been sent to the hospital by authorities or families for treatment, with the goal of returning to the community. They have committed no crimes. (Two additional patients are classified simply as “other.”)

It’s not clear where these patients will go if the Junction City hospital were to close.

Brown has expressed a preference for community-based mental health care. But offenders who have been sent to the psychiatric hospital by court order can’t be released into the community. The most likely outcome would be to send them to the psychiatric hospital in Salem, the only other state hospital with secure beds. But that hospital also is generally full, which could mean sending other patients currently housed there back to the community to make room for incoming patients from Junction City.

Where the resources are going to come from to serve these patients, and others who will be looking for community-based mental health care, is a large question.

Several Register-Guard readers have already weighed in on the proposed closure, saying there aren’t adequate mental health resources locally and that the new hospital was literally a lifesaver for family members.

A new audit of the Lane County community mental health program backs them up. The audit concluded that community-based mental health care, with a focus on recovery that includes intensive case management, is the most effective way to treat and manage serious and persistent mental illness, The problem is, Lane County doesn’t have either the trained staff or the money to meet demand. This is true throughout the state.

The Curry County Pilot, for example, reported earlier this year that patients waiting there for space in a state mental hospital were ending up in the local hospital’s “hold room” - which has no windows, doors, restrooms or security - back out on the streets, or in jail.

The country has suffered from inadequate mental health care for decades mainly because of two factors. A series of court cases in the 1960s, while well-intentioned, made hospitalization more difficult and relied on the incorrect assumption that there would be adequate community resources as an alternative. And changes in federal funding, culminating in the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, slashed spending for community-based mental health care.

Mental health is a serious issue. Looking to balance the state budget at the cost of a facility, and programs, that are helping Oregonians is a bad idea. Legislators, Democratic and Republican, should turn thumbs down on it.

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