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What really counts as “bad” behavior in the Oregon Capitol?

Political observers are salivating over what will happen to Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence. I’m more intrigued by the conduct case involving Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, whom Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, accused of sexual harassment.

Let’s start with Nearman anyway. An independent investigator’s report this week concluded that on Dec. 21, 2020, Nearman “more likely than not intentionally assisted demonstrators in breaching security and entering the Capitol,” which was closed to the public and remains so. Nearman also has been charged with two misdemeanors in Marion County – official misconduct and criminal mischief – from the incident.

It seems a reasonable conclusion that Nearman “more likely than not” deliberately opened an Oregon Capitol door so demonstrators could enter after he exited. However, is “more likely than not” the appropriate standard by which the Legislature should judge him?

The House Conduct Committee will meet Wednesday evening to discuss the investigator’s report and potentially what action to take. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and others already have called for Nearman to resign. The four-member committee is equally weighted between Republicans and Democrats.

First, however, the Conduct Committee will meet Friday afternoon to discuss what to do about Witt. After meeting via videoconference for nearly three hours Tuesday, members ran out of steam and held off discussing whether any “remedies” – discipline or other recommendations – should be applied to Witt. On a series of votes, they did rule that his text messages responding to Breese Iverson were of a sexual nature and affected her ability to do her job as a legislator. She and Witt serve on three committees together.

Witt disagrees with how his texts were interpreted.

Regardless of whether his texts were clumsy, subconsciously suggestive or deliberately so, they illustrate once again that a) some legislators (and others) still don’t “get it,” and b) the Legislature and Oregon Capitol are inherently hostile workplaces where behavior is tolerated that elsewhere would be considered wrong.

Where is the line, asked committee member Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland: “We can all be offended all the time by lots of different things.”

For example, legislators (and others) sometimes lie. “I personally have been offended so many times recently,” Sanchez said. “What offends me the most is when someone lies to me, straight up bald-faced lies to me.”

Yet lying doesn't count as a hostile work environment.

When I first started covering the Legislature years ago, I was stunned to realize that certain legislators had flawless public reputations that belied their duplicity and hypocrisy within the Capitol. Some such legislators have gone on to higher office. On the other hand, there are many legislators (and others) whose word is good.

Politics is built on power. For almost every other occupation, research shows that the most important asset is emotional intelligence, which roughly can be described as a combination of one’s work ethic and one’s ability to work well with others. In politics, what counts is the ability to amass power, whether by personality and charisma, fundraising prowess, alliance-building or arm-twisting (and worse).

By the way, Witt was irritated that Breese Iverson texted him, asking him to support one of her bills, after supposedly opposing much of Witt’s agenda. (She disagreed with that characterization of her record.)

Two observations: First, I am neither a lawyer nor a legal investigator. However, the Oregon Legislature’s outside investigators’ reports often have struck me as full of holes.

Second, the Legislature has a long, long way to go in establishing a respectful, harassment-free workplace – let alone deciding what constitutes a respectful workplace.

From Independence but not: Rep. Nearman is listed as being from Independence because that’s the post office for his mailing address. He lives outside town.

In light of Nearman’s actions, local officials have emphasized that the city actually is in the House district represented by Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth.

O, for transparency: Undecided whether to adjourn or to continue Tuesday evening’s meeting, the Conduct Committee took a short recess. That apparently was when the decision to adjourn was made – offscreen and out of public view. When the meeting resumed, co-chair Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, simply announced they would be adjourning instead of deliberating more.

I don’t have a problem with the adjournment decision; I do with the process.

Legislative committees are prone to taking breaks so members can discuss how to proceed or who’s going to vote which way. This applies to Democrats and Republicans alike.

In-person, this can be a couple of legislators whispering to each other or huddling in the hall. Virtually, it means the video cameras and recording are stopped. Whatever the means, the practice runs counter to true transparency and public accountability. The public’s business should be conducted in public. That includes discussions of how to conduct that business.

Meanwhile, technology glitches persist at the Legislature. Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, apologized on the House floor that Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, was unable to get into Friday’s five-and-a-half minute virtual meeting of the House General Government Committee. Wilde chairs the committee. Leif is a vice chair.

I’m also hearing from Oregonians who continue having difficulty accessing certain written testimony on the Legislature’s website.

Life at the DMV: Unlike many tech projects, the Oregon DMV’s transition to a new computer system has gone reasonably well. Spokesman David House said the public now can access two dozen services online compared to only three a couple of years ago. (Go to DMV2U.Oregon.gov.)

They include scheduling an in-person appointment, which must be done for becoming a new driver or a new Oregon resident, or adding REAL ID or a motorcycle endorsement. Most other transactions can be conducted online or by mail, which frees up appointment slots.

DMV field offices were averaging about 30,000 driver license renewals a month earlier this year. In the first month of online renewal, 46,600 drivers used that method.

All 60 DMV offices now are open for appointments. The agency is averaging 35,000 appointments each week, more than double last summer when DMV first reopened by appointment-only.

However, people remain frustrated by the waits. One Oregonian recently complained to DMV Administrator Amy Joyce that he had to wait two months for an in-person appointment. He checked neighboring states. If he were a Californian, he could get a same-day appointment in Santa Barbara. If he were a Washingtonian, he could have an appointment within two days in Vancouver.

House said appointments remain in such high demand that they fill quickly when the agency adds them in blocks two or three months in advance.

“Rural areas east of the Cascades have started to see appointment slots free up, and they are able to help some stand-by customers on days with open slots or no-shows,” he said in an email. “In most cases, definitely the populated areas, we don’t recommend people come without an appointment. When there is capacity, most offices have been able to assist a handful of people on some days, but I would not recommend dropping into DMV yet unless you live east of the Cascades other than Bend.”

Disclosure: My wife renewed her license, upgrading to REAL ID, at the Klamath Falls DMV office a few days ago. Appointments were available much sooner than in Salem, where we live, and we were going to be in Klamath Falls anyway. She said the process went smoothly.

My rant: Oregon does not have a Department of Motor Vehicles, despite what legislators, the governor and others often say. Our DMV’s status as a free-standing department ended long ago when the agency was shifted into the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In Oregon, the DMV acronym now stands for Driver and Motor Vehicle Services division.

Please, don’t say, “Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles.”

I now return you to your own rants.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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