Public agencies must walk fine line

The Web site of the Medford/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce lists the Medford School District, Rogue Community College and the city of Medford as members with more than 100 employees. How can government agencies supported by taxpayers belong to an organization that takes some decidedly controversial political stands on global warming and health care reform and is against Oregon Measures 66 and 67?

— Bill K., Medford.

A good question, Bill. In fact, it was a question that piqued the interest of the Secretary of State's Elections Division. The short answer is that there's nothing in the law to prevent a government body from belonging to an organization like the chamber. The longer answer involves all kinds of warnings for the public agencies and employees who are members.

Carla Corbin, of the Elections Division office in Salem, said that while it's legal for a public agency to belong to the chamber, any public employee member must exercise extreme caution when it comes to electioneering by the chamber.

Corbin said the burden is entirely on the public employees to ensure that their names or the names of their agencies are not linked to support or opposition for any candidate or measure. If the chamber were to say that "the chamber membership" sup

ported or opposed an issue, it would have to explicitly note that its various public agency members — listed by name — did not participate in a vote and were prohibited by law from participating in such a vote. The same would hold true if the endorsement came only from the chamber board — any public employees on the board would be required to be listed by name, accompanied by the explanation that the member did not participate.

Corbin said it is not enough for the public agency or public employee to refrain from participating; they must notify the public in any related advertisements or announcements that they did not participate. Failure to do so would potentially put the agency or employee in violation of state election laws. (The rules do not apply to elected public officials, only to nonelected public employees.)

That explains whether and how public agencies/employees can participate legally. If you are asking why they would want to participate, well, there's probably a different answer for every member.

For many, it's a matter of remaining in close communication with the business community. Rogue Community College, for instance, develops many of its programs on feedback from industry. The college district needs to know what jobs are available and what skills are needed to perform those jobs.

"It's important that we have a dialogue with the business community," said RCC spokeswoman Margaret Bradford.

Bradford noted that an example of how that connection pays off is that, while the chamber may oppose Measures 66 and 67, the organization made the Medford Higher Education Center its highest legislative priority a couple of years ago.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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