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Voices of the Northwest



Sadler's Sense: Not Window Dressing

A Recent History of Oregon's Citizen Boards and Commissions

By Russell Sadler

Posted on Feb 5, 2005

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In an age when elected politicians are increasingly ideological and hear only what they want to hear, much of Oregon's economic and civic life is governed by an alphabet soup of state boards and commissions. From the Board of Accountancy to the Workers Compensation Board these board and commission members are the custodians of Oregon's political tradition of independent citizen government, maverick politics and non-partisan, pragmatic problem-solving.

Appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate, members of these boards and commissions volunteer to serve. Most receive no pay and are compensated only for their expenses. This unusual arrangement allows ordinary citizens to influence state policies to a degree unmatched in the federal government and many states.

Oregon's boards and commissions are not window dressing "advisory" committees. They wield real power over policies of the state agencies they govern. The clout comes from two sources -- members hire and fire the head of the agency they govern and they must approve any changes in the permanent rules that govern the agency. This power to influence state policy attracts board members who would never consider elective politics.

The late Glen Jackson, CEO and later Chairman of Pacific Power and Light, is regarded as the quintessential commission member. He chaired the State Transportation Commission for so many years that he arguably had as much influence on the siting and construction of Oregon's post-World War II transportation system as any engineer, government bureaucrat or elected official.

Commission members like Jackson took their independence from elected officials very seriously. Neil Goldschmidt was Secretary of Transportation in the Carter Administration. When Goldschmidt became governor in 1987, he sent a letter to every incumbent board and commission member demanding a letter of resignation so he could appoint whoever he wanted in the tradition of the federal government.

Goldschmidt's letter triggered the biggest rebellion I have seen in more than 30 years of covering Oregon government. Dozens of board and commission members, some appointed by former Gov. Bob Straub, others by former Gov. Vic Atiyeh, met in Room 50, the Capitol's largest hearing room. After talking to one another all day, they drafted a uniform reply to Goldschmidt's letter. They agreed:

- the federal tradition of automatic resignations was not an Oregon tradition.

- board and commission members were appointed by previous governors to serve the people of Oregon, not a particular governor or political party.

- one role of state boards and commissions was providing continuity during a change in administrations.

- board and commission members served for staggered, fixed terms and could only be replaced for cause.

Goldschmidt backed down and the independence of Oregon's boards and commissions was preserved.

Not everyone admires Oregon's boards and commissions. Lobbyists have a hard time influencing the decisions of people who are so independent. As appointed officials, board and commission members do not need campaign funds. They serve voluntarily and their incomes are derived from family or whatever business they are engaged in. They are not out of work if they lose their appointment. Lobbyists now use the Senate confirmation process to try and block the appointment of people they do not want regulating their industry. This technique works best for the interest groups that give the biggest bucks to State Senate campaigns -- the timber and agricultural industries and labor unions. But the independence of state boards and commissions remains a source of frustration for lobbyists and partisans who would like to turn the system into a pork barrel.

This uniquely Oregon system does not always work the way it should. The Traffic Safety Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation is widely regarded as a dysfunctional agency that bullies, cajoles, wheedles or co-opts its governing board and advisory committees into doing what the staff wants. This is the agency that drafted the poorly thought out school zone speed-limit changes last session that are the bane of confused motorists and the boon of revenue-hungry local governments. In addition to considering repeal of the changes, it will be interesting to see if the Legislature holds the agency accountable for bad advice that embarrassed so many lawmakers so publicly. The Legislature is the ultimate check on executive branch agencies.

Oregon's system of boards and commissions is a last bastion of nonpartisan government where reasoning and persuasion will still win an argument. It is a place where ordinary people listen to ordinary people like themselves expressing their opinions on a policy before deciding how to change that policy. Given Oregon's part-time Legislature, the boards and commissions are an important level of continuing citizen checks and balances on the government that affects our daily lives.

A disclosure:

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has nominated Russell Sadler for a position on the State Marine Board. Sadler's confirmation is pending in the Senate. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, the editors will assign other reporters to write about the Marine Board.

Copyright© 2005 by Russell Sadler



Russell Sadler is a journalist and lecturer at Southern Oregon University. Visit Sadler's Sense column's at West By Northwest.org:

Sadler's Sense: From Constantine to George, God's Will and Secular Power

Sadler's Sense: Credibility or State of Our State

Sadler's Sense: Look in the Mirror, Oregon

Sadler's Sense: Why We Must Pay the Piper Now

Sadler's Sense: A Short History of Measure 30



© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By Northwest.org

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