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Small-town officials quit over Ore. ethics rule

/ Source: The Associated Press

In tiny Elgin, six of the seven City Council members are quitting. The entire five-member planning commission resigned last week.

In Enterprise, four planning commission members left their jobs, as did one in Rogue River and some in some in Canyonville. Three City Council members in North Powder weren't far behind, and a Roseburg planning commission member said he, too, is out of there.

Many local officeholders across Oregon are resigning rather than fill out financial-disclosure forms, saying the new ethics requirement is an invasion of privacy.

"Big Brother is watching," grumbled Enterprise City Council member Sharon Sherlock.

More may quit by Tuesday, when the forms are due from elected or appointed public officials in 97 towns and six county governments that exercised their right to opt out of a 1974 Oregon law requiring officeholders to disclose their business interests. The Legislature voted in 2007 to end that exemption, reasoning that everyone should play by the same rules.

Most of those resigning were volunteer officeholders from small towns, often in conservative inland areas with a strong mind-your-own-business attitude and a mistrust of flatlands, as people from the urban areas around Portland and Salem are known.

But many of the politicians also appear to be reacting to misinformation circulating in the countryside, where rumor spreads quickly.

'Many are not really please'
Some of them mistakenly think that their financial information is going to be posted online, or that they must list the incomes and addresses of their adult children.

"One man called from Keizer and said he thought he had to list all of his business' customers," said Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Ethics Commission.

He said the commission has been setting people straight, and "many are not really pleased, but they are filling out the forms. We are getting hundreds in each day."

Bersin said Wednesday that he knew of about 30 resignations so far. More than 5,000 forms are due next week.

Officeholders must list businesses in which they have an interest, sources of income (though not specific amounts), names of relatives over 18, and property held in their jurisdictions. The forms do not seek information about mortgages, personal bank accounts or credit cards.

The disclosure statements are on file in the state capital, Salem, and can be checked by anyone, though they very rarely are.

"I thought I lived in America, where I had a right to privacy," Elgin City Council member Sue Moore fumed.

Elgin City Recorder Joe Garlitz likened the departing officials to frogs dropped in boiling water and jumping out: "They have never seen this before and have an instinctive understanding that this is wrong."

A clean history
Oregon has a long history of a transparent government and is among just a few states that require local officeholders to disclose their holdings, a measure aimed at revealing potential conflicts of interest. For example, a politician's husband might own a company that is bidding on a big contract from City Hall.

Officials in most Oregon towns and counties have been filling out the forms since 1974, though the listing of adult relatives is new.

Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski wrote on Tuesday to those required to file, saying Oregonians are entitled to an open government.

Drew Foster, city administrator of Adair Village, said two planning commission members and a councilman may leave. He said he fears a chilling effect on the volunteers who govern most Oregon towns.

In Summerville, Mayor Sherri Rogers said all four City Council members quit. She said she would like to join them, but then no one would be in charge. In the meantime, she said, the town cannot pay electricity and other bills now because checks require two signatures.

North Powder City Administrator Sue Harris said she actually may have a conflict of interest — her husband works for an engineering firm that does business with the town. But she said she is leaving over the state's requirement that she list her children: "I don't think that's any of their business."