Oregon doesn’t have traffic crashes.
But it does have computer crashes.
A routine bill in the 2021 Legislature would have changed the terms “accident” and “collision” in state traffic laws to “crash.” However, House Bill 3050 died in the Senate Rules Committee, where Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, had inexplicably sent it in Legislature’s final month. Due to what was described as “some sort of technical glitch,” it never appeared on the that committee’s list of bills to work.
The 89-page bill itself is not a big deal, although the term “accident” is considered outdated because most crashes are preventable – the result of human errors as opposed to accidental occurrences. What matters is that HB 3050’s fate was not unique. Legislative staff said at least a few other bills also “disappeared” due to IT glitches.
Technology is fallible. Its shortcomings in the 2021 Legislature are nothing compared with other recent IT woes in state government – the new state phone system, an emergency radio network, the Cover Oregon healthcare site debacle and, of course, the highly publicized problems with the Employment Department systems.
Neither is overconfidence, or hubris, unique to the IT world. Remember the confidence with which Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said in February 2020 that our state was well-prepared to handle this emerging coronavirus known as COVID-19?
Democrats touted the 2021 session as the most accessible and transparent in Oregon history because people could testify on bills from anywhere in Oregon via videoconference or telephone. Sticking with that talking point, legislative leadership rarely acknowledged the shortcomings: Committee meetings were confined to specific time blocks, due to technology limits, which in turn limited the amount of public testimony and legislator discussion. Video feeds sometimes crashed. Committee members often were not viewable to the public, and sometimes not to each other. People frequently told of being unable to get through when it was their turn to testify. Written testimony and other documents sometimes became difficult to find as legislation moved along.
Though the Legislature’s technology was vastly improved from years past, it widened the gap between the technological haves and have-nots. Oregonians needed some level of technical savvy to participate. They also required reliable internet or phone connections, which are absent in much of rural Oregon.
(Viewing stations were set up outside the Capitol so anyone lacking internet access could watch the proceedings. As best I can recall, I never saw anyone using them.)
Regardless of what the world may wish for, the old “normal” is forever gone. The pandemic inserted technology into our lives in valuable ways that may never disappear – from enabling remote participation in legislative hearings to conducting medical appointments via video, ordering online from restaurants and combining in-person and video worship services.
And so, the overriding technology question for the Legislature and Oregon Capitol staff can be divided into four parts: A) What lessons were learned this year? B) Who is compiling, evaluating and following up on those lessons? C) In addition, what ideas can Oregon borrow from other states, local governments and the private sector? D) What improvements will be made for the 2022 Legislature, and beforehand, and how will these improvements be effectively tested by real people across the state?
Here are two more questions about Capitol operations:
Are metal detectors coming to the Capitol?
The Oregon Capitol reopens to the public on July 12. But what will the public experience be like, given that the main public entrances remain off-limits due to construction?
Meanwhile, the Legislature voted ban to individuals, including holders of concealed weapon permits, from carrying guns into the Capitol. That presumably would affect legislators or staff who regularly carry concealed weapons for self-defense. How will this be enforced, if it comes to that?
Three Republican representatives – E. Werner Reschke of Klamath Falls, David Brock Smith of Port Orford and recently ousted Mike Nearman of Independence – filed an initiative on June 2 to overturn that Senate Bill 554, which also includes other firearms restrictions. They have until Sept. 24 to collect 74,680 valid signatures from voters and force an election.
The Legislature, not the governor, is in charge of the Capitol. If SB 554 does take effect this fall, will the Legislature install metal detectors, institute searches of people entering the building or enact other security measures? The front of the Capitol already resembles a fortress with concrete security bollards blocking the drive-thru where cars and buses would unload visiting school children, tourists, demonstrators and others.
When will the Legislature appoint permanent staff leadership?
Key interim positions have been filled for months, even years, with interim appointments. They include Jessica Knieling, interim human resources director; Brett Hanes, interim legislative administrator; and Laurie Byerly, interim legislative fiscal officer.
The Legislature also is recruiting for the legislative equity officer following the abrupt resignation last month of acting officer Nate Monson, who began work in April. I reported that resignation last week in Capital Chatter. Here is more, from a withering memo titled “State of the Legislative Equity Office.”
“The consequences of this office’s failures are astonishingly serious,” Monson wrote, adding that the Legislature’s 2019 settlement agreement with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries “created this position with mandates to ensure the Capitol was a safe place for all. The failures of the Legislative Equity Office, not only cost taxpayer funds, but ensure the culture of harassment lives on in the Oregon Capitol.”
He went on to say, “I can determine there are at least 4 cases that may come forward soon resulting in the need for serious action by the Legislature.”
The circumstances of Monson’s departure remain murky, including whether his resignation was voluntary or forced. I could not independently verify his claims, some of which might be sour grapes. However, he raised serious questions about the oversight, effectiveness and financial management of the Legislative Equity Office, which is charged with promoting a harassment-free, non-hostile workplace.
Among his contentions:
• Investigations stalled at times because the outside investigators had not been paid or the costs were over budget. That was why the investigation regarding Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, took longer.
• The House Democrats’ conduct complaint against Nearman was incorrectly processed and not fully handled.
• No case files existed. “All case files now are ones I developed to begin puzzling together all the past cases.”
• "There is no data collection. There is no tracking of patterns of behavior.”
• There is a track record of individuals reporting alleged misconduct but their cases going unheard.