February 27, 1999
BILL WOULD TIGHTEN LOCAL CONFLICT-OF-INTEREST RULES
By Alex Pulaski of the Oregonian Staff
1999 Legislature Land Use
Summary: The renewed Senate measure aims to broaden the definition of a conflict and invalidate land-use votes if an official withholds information
In Brookings, a planning commissioner votes to expand the city's urban growth boundary without mentioning that the action will rope in 100 acres owned by his parents.
In Hood River, a planning commission member related to and employed by a company hoping to transform pear orchards into a golf course declares a conflict of interest. Then he steps down and fires questions and comments at the development's opponents from the floor.
In Dundee, the mayor struggles to convince a controversial developer on the planning commission that he should declare a conflict when weighing a potential competitor's development application.
Although current Oregon law requires public officials to declare such conflicts, it explicitly prohibits courts from overturning their actions solely because they failed to do so.
Under a bill introduced in the 1999 Legislature by Sen. Thomas Wilde, D-Portland, failure to declare such a conflict would automatically invalidate any vote taken. The bill, Senate Bill 444, would also bolster conflict-of-interest law by:
* Requiring elected and appointed public officials to declare whether individuals before them in a land-use decision had donated to their campaigns.
* Broadening the field for potential conflicts, in the case of planning commissioners, from the current standard of having business partners and immediate family members with "a direct or substantial financial interest" to having business partners or immediate family members as "parties to the proceeding."
Passing the bill won't be easy. It's being supported by the influential land-use watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon but is opposed by the powerful Oregon Building Industry Association.
As a nonprofit organization, 1000 Friends does not endorse candidates or make political contributions; its fledgling political action committee also has not given money to a candidate. The builders association, however, makes more than $100,000 in election- year campaign contributions through its two political action committees.
When he introduced the same bill two years ago, Wilde couldn't even get it out of committee. It is expected to move onto the Senate floor this session, but Wilde is not sure how eager legislators are to subject the actions of public officials to greater scrutiny.
"I feel like I'm really on thin ice with elected officials," he said. "Most of them assume themselves to be exceedingly ethical. Most would say, 'I would never . . . ,' and as soon as they say that, I know I've lost them."
Wilde's bill would apparently be unaffected by an opinion issued earlier this week by the state attorney general. It concluded that legislators were responsible for policing their own ethics; the Wilde bill is specifically aimed at local government officials.
SB444 faces competition from another bill, House Bill 2585 by Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem. The bill would water down existing law by requiring public officials to declare the "existence" of a conflict rather than its "nature," unless asked to explain its nature by another member of the same elected body or the appointing authority.
Jon Chandler, chief lobbyist for the builders organization, said his organization opposed the Wilde bill because it believed current laws requiring conflict and campaign statements were adequate.
"Candidates already have to turn in the source of their contributions," he said. "Wanting to do more than that implies there is some kind of purchase going on, which is absolutely not the case."
Chandler also said he thought elected and appointed officials were, by and large, declaring conflicts of interest.
The state Government Standards and Practices Commission has received between 34 and 63 complaints every year for the past five years alleging conflict of interest of all types. It finds violations in roughly one of every four cases.
One such complaint was received in 1996. It alleged that Ted Freeman, a member of the Brookings Planning Commission, voted in March 1995 to approve expansion of the city's urban growth boundary without disclosing that his parents owned 100 acres in the affected area.
The state ethics commission's investigation determined that although the allegation was true, Freeman was not required to declare the conflict because his parents did not have a "direct or substantial financial interest" in seeing their land included inside the boundary. The complaint was dismissed. The investigator based his recommendation largely on a statement by Freeman's
mother that she and her husband had no plans to develop their property.
But Curry County's assessor and two city planners told the same investigator that the land's long-term value was likely to rise substantially, provided that property owners cooperated in preparing costly master plans. Even if the commission had found that Freeman should have declared a conflict of interest, Oregon law expressly prohibits using that as the sole grounds for overturning a decision.
Under the Wilde bill, however, the state Land Use Board of Appeals would be required to invalidate a vote taken in which an actual conflict had not been declared.
Land-use watchers such as former Brookings Mayor Fred Hummel, who filed the ethics complaint against Freeman, said the conflict law needed to be strengthened.
"Right now, it seems to be unbelievably difficult to prove a violation even when it's blatant," he said. "People do something and walk away from it because there's no hammer out there."
You can reach Alex Pulaski at 503-294-5957 or by e-mail at email@example.com.