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GOP ethics bills get airing in Oregon House committee

By JONATHAN J. COOPER
Of the Associated Press

SALEM — Local government officials and lobbyists told an Oregon legislative committee Monday that it would be too expensive and time consuming to comply with a proposal to strengthen the state's public records laws.

The Democrat-controlled House Rules Committee listened to more than an hour of discussion but took no action on the public records measure. It was one of six Republican-sponsored ethics and transparency bills the committee took up in the wake of the scandal that led to former Gov. John Kitzhaber's resignation.

The GOP measures will be considered along with others proposed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, said Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, the No. 2 Democrat in the House who chairs the Rules Committee.

The records bill would create deadlines for government agencies to respond to requests for public documents, put a limit on fees they can charge to produce them and require that documents be retained for at least three years.

“We know what the real problem is with public records — it's the stonewalling with time and fees, and not getting the records to the public,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, a West Linn Republican who sponsored the bill.

It was also backed by journalists and transparency advocates, who said weaknesses in the current law keep the public in the dark about the functions of government.

“Sometimes the stations don't do the news reporting they need to do because they can't afford (records),” said Bill Johnstone, president of the Oregon Association of Broadcasters.

But a parade of officials from local governments complained it would be impossible for them to fulfill all records requests within six weeks, as the bill would require. They said complying with records requests would have to take precedence over other priorities, particularly in small agencies that have staff performing multiple functions.

“It really gets to be a matter of which state statute are you going to ignore?” said Eillen Stein, city manager in Mount Angel.

The proposal comes amid heightened scrutiny of Oregon's transparency laws after the influence-peddling controversy surrounding Kitzhaber and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. The former governor stepped down in February following a series of newspaper reports, based in part on public documents, about Hayes’ work for advocacy groups seeking to influence state government.

Federal investigators are looking into the arrangements. Hayes and Kitzhaber have denied wrongdoing.

In addition to the public records bill, Parrish proposed creating new requirements for the governor's spouse to report and limit sources of income. Two other bills would allow criminal charges against executive branch officials who provide false information to the Legislature. She said lawmakers would have detected the problems at Cover Oregon, the state's failed health insurance exchange, much sooner if they'd had accurate information from the agency.

Brown, who was secretary of state before taking over for Kitzhaber two months ago, has proposed less sweeping ethics reforms and is working hard to turn the page on the Kitzhaber controversy.

Brown wants to delay action on public records until next year after the secretary of state conducts an audit of state agencies’ policies. She's also proposed changing the makeup of the state ethics commission and imposing tougher conflict-of-interest rules for the governor's spouse and advisers.

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