2021 is starting badly as far as transparency in state government.
A quick recap of just the past few days:
The Oregon Health Authority abruptly announced it no longer would disclose information about individual deaths from COVID-19.
Thirty-two thousand vaccine doses destined for elsewhere in Oregon were redirected to the Portland metro area by order of Gov. Kate Brown, but officials did not explain where those doses were being taken from.
A week ago, Brown held a lengthy press conference that supposedly was “to discuss her legislative agenda as outlined in her State of the State address, as well as Oregon's ongoing response to COVID-19.” Instead, most of the time went to Brown and her invited guests praising her controversial decision to prioritize vaccinations for school employees ahead of senior citizens. That consumed so much time that only three reporters could ask questions before Brown ended the press conference. Meanwhile, Brown’s post-State of the State press conference that had been scheduled for the previous day had been canceled “due to scheduling changes and changes to the legislative calendar this week.”
The names, titles and email addresses for the governor’s staff have been scrubbed from her office website because of security concerns. Fortunately, the public index of state agency employees remains viable (as of this writing).
Unlike Washington and California, Oregon’s Employment Department will not release information about the number of COVID-19 benefit claims being investigating for unemployment fraud or how much has been paid out in potentially fraudulent benefits.
Because the Oregon Capitol remains closed to the public, legislative leaders promised unparalleled public access through technology. That new system turns out to be geared toward the technological literate, exacerbating the divide between the technology haves and have nots.
I’ll focus today on that public interaction with the 2021 Legislature, because most of the other issues have been covered widely in the news media.
Legislative staff put together an excellent selection of Citizen Engagement resources. However, the technology can be challenging, to say the least.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, alluded to that in his Wednesday evening newsletter. He chairs the Senate Education Committee, which conducted a public hearing that afternoon on reopening public schools. More than 100 pieces of testimony were submitted online. However, many people who had signed up to speak did not do so.
“I’m not sure if the problem was technical or they decided to rely on their written testimony,” Dembrow wrote. “In case it’s the former, I decided to schedule a ‘second chance’ hearing for Friday, 3:30 to 5, to give those who had signed up another chance to testify.”
To testify before a committee, people must register in advance. Registration closes at the start of the meeting, unlike past years in which the committee chair often would look around the room and say, “Is there anyone else here who wishes to testify?”
The Legislature uses Microsoft Teams videoconferencing for its virtual meetings. Testimony also can be given by phone. Registration is different for the two methods.
Once a committee arrives at public testimony on the agenda, people in the queue are supposed to stop watching online and instead listen on their phone or through Microsoft Teams, so they don’t miss their name being called. That is because the “live” video streaming on OLIS (Oregon Legislative Information System) is more than a few seconds behind.
People may turn on their camera while testifying, if desired, so others can see their face. However, unlike Zoom, Microsoft Teams shows only a few meeting participants. Brett Hanes, interim legislative administrator, says Microsoft has been asked to fix that.
In addition, some legislators turn off their computer cameras except when speaking. The cumulative result is that people testifying – or anyone watching online – cannot pick up the visual clues of legislators’ reactions, including whether legislators are paying attention at all.
Written testimony can be sent through old-fashioned mail, or by uploading a PDF or submitting text through an online portal. No longer can people email their testimony, although emails might be accepted if there is a public hearing on a topic instead of a bill.
To add to the confusion, you cannot click on the links listed in committee agendas in OLIS. Instead, you must copy and paste that link into a browser. Or click on the PDF version of the agenda, which does have hot links
The bottom line is that finding one’s way can be confusing and time-consuming.
A partisan nonpartisan legislative employee: While introducing herself during a committee meeting this week, a new committee assistant said she was glad to be working in Oregon with its Democratic legislative majority after previously working in a state with a Democratic super-minority.
Unlike in Congress, legislative committee staff in Oregon are to be nonpartisan, which the director of the Legislative Policy and Research Office reiterated in a Capitol email on Thursday.
Misty Mason Freeman wrote: “Our LPRO team takes great pride in the role we play for the Oregon legislature, and our goal is to provide professional nonpartisan staffing, analysis, and research that supports the policymaking process.
“Earlier this week, a new session committee assistant had a serious lapse of judgment in a committee, identifying themselves in a partisan way. The gravity of this is not lost on me, and the staff person was counseled and their duties modified. On Friday, I will be meeting with new staff to re-emphasize the importance of nonpartisanship in LPRO and to reiterate expectations of our staff.
“I want to share that LPRO incorporates our nonpartisanship throughout our hiring process, including screening for partisan experience in resumes and building in probing interview questions. Analysts are screened to a significantly higher nonpartisan standard in the hiring process than are committee assistants because of the nature of the positions. In our onboarding process, all staff receive training and guidance on nonpartisanship.
“Each one of us, of course, holds our own beliefs and values, but when it comes to our work for the legislature, it is essential that we always present ourselves and do our work in a nonpartisan way so that all 90 members are well served.
“Thank you for your patience as we work through this difficult situation.”
Who gets the vaccine: Gov. Brown is taking flak for prioritizing school employees ahead of senior citizens for coronavirus vaccinations. However, she is correct in saying that each state establishes its own priorities. And in Arizona and Wyoming, those decisions are left to counties.
I’ll use myself as an example of that variance. In Oregon, I am not yet eligible for the vaccine. That’s fine, I believe in waiting my turn. Yet I would be eligible in at least 23 states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
Brown and first gentleman Dan Little have not received the vaccine. I do not know about their other family members, except that Brown told The Associated Press her sister in Minnesota was being asked to return to the classroom despite not being vaccinated.
“No matter what you do, people aren’t happy,” Brown said. “The teachers in Minnesota are furious at the governor because they are doing seniors first. And here, the seniors are furious at me because I am doing teachers first. There are no right answers, and there are no easy decisions.”