Dick Hughes

Session Anger Sparks Courtney Recall Drive

[Photo Credit: The Oregonian] Despite brokering the bipartisan deal that allowed the rancorous 2016 Oregon legislative session to end smoothly and early, Senate President Peter Courtney faces a recall drive led by a Woodburn Republican who says the longest serving Senate president in state history is “out of touch.”

[Photo Credit: The Oregonian] Despite brokering the bipartisan deal that allowed the rancorous 2016 Oregon legislative session to end smoothly and early, Senate President Peter Courtney faces a recall drive led by a Woodburn Republican who says the longest serving Senate president in state history is “out of touch.”

Senator Peter Courtney, the longest serving Oregon Senate president, is facing a recall attempt for the third time in a long political career that stretches back to 1980. The drive, which started collecting signatures over the weekend, may represent spillover hard feelings from the 2016 legislative session.

Courtney's critics are perturbed about successful Democratic legislation in the short 2016 session to phase out coal power and raise the minimum wage. They also are upset that Courtney didn’t push through the resolution to ask voters to approve setting aside 2 percent of Oregon Lottery proceeds to help veterans.

The coal-to-clean bill, which was hammered out as a compromise between electric utilities and environmentalists to avoid a more aggressive ballot measure this fall, created political tension during the short session. House and Senate Republicans demanded that bills be read aloud in their entirety, which slowed down session progress and jeopardized passage of several major bills, including the coal-to-clean legislation.

Some of the venom of the short session landed on Courtney, who played a lead role in convincing Oregonians to amend the state Constitution and permit annual sessions. Skeptics said it was unlikely lawmakers would stick to minor housekeeping legislation and budget tweaks in the 35-day, even-year session. The 2016 session was packed with high-profile bills, including multiple minimum wage bills, several marijuana industry measures and significant energy and environmental legislation.

Matt Geiger, a Woodburn business leader who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2014, is spearheading the Courtney recall. Geiger was planning to make another run for the House, this time as an Independent, but dropped his plans to pursue the recall.

Geiger said the higher minimum wage will harm the agricultural and small business sectors. The utility-environmental compromise on coal, Geiger said, would drive up electricity rates without real environmental benefits in Oregon. He also questioned a bill introduced by Courtney that would allow mass transit districts to impose a payroll tax. That bill never made it out of committee during the 2016 session, largely because Courtney let it sit in deference to the bill’s critics. 

“It’s time we remove from office someone who is clearly out of touch with the needs of his community and who only seems to care about which special interest is writing him a check,” Geiger said in a press release.

However, Dick Hughes, editorial page editor for the Statesman Journal, wondered aloud in a weekend column why Courtney is being targeted. The recall pecks at the coal-to-clean bill that passed, but it fails to mention the California-styled cap-and-trade energy bill that Courtney blocked, to the frustration of many Democrats.

“Peter Courtney is an odd target,” Hughes wrote. “I’m befuddled. The liberalist liberal among legislative leadership is House Speaker Tina Kotek, not Courtney.” It was Courtney who brokered the deal between Republicans and Democrats that allowed the rancorous session to end smoothly and early.

Courtney became Senate president in the 2003 session when there were 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans. He was the only Senate Democrat who Republicans trusted enough to hand him the gavel. He has held the post since then.

Courtney won re-election in 2014 and hasn’t given any firm indications of whether he will run again in 2018 when he will turn 75. The two previous recall efforts against him failed to gather enough signatures. In Oregon, the last 10 recall petitions have failed to receive enough valid signatures. The last successful recall election occurred eight years ago with the ouster of a Wheeler County district attorney. 

The Risky Business of Government Risk-Taking

Risk-taking in government can be risky, as the authors of the Cover Oregon fiasco discovered.

Risk-taking in government can be risky, as the authors of the Cover Oregon fiasco discovered.

Government risk-taking is risky business. If government officials take a policy or program risk and it flops, they are criticized for wasting taxpayer money. If officials avoid taking a risk and a problem festers, they also get criticized for wasting taxpayer money.

Dick Hughes, editorial page editor for the Statesman Journal, says risk-taking is a good idea for government. "If we want government to succeed at a higher level, we must be willing to tolerate failures," Hughes said. "That sounds counter-intuitive, but most great leaders also have a string of failures – ones from which they learned.” 

That sounds good in theory, but maybe less so in practice. In many ways, the deck is stacked against government risk-taking. My 15 years in government service says no risk-taking, however successful, goes unpunished.

It is hard to quarrel with brickbats aimed at foolish risk-taking such as Cover Oregon's over-reaching attempt to build a health insurance exchange website. Other risk-taking, especially the kind that might take a while to prove out, still earns "gotcha" reporting in the media. Many public managers, who are no fools, quickly grasp the odds are low for risk-taking in government that earns kudos.

There is room for reasonable risk-taking in government, but it requires planning, strategy and discipline, not taking a spin on a roulette wheel. Here are some suggestions based on my experience:

•  The risk should result from a consensus. Even good ideas get better when a diverse team vets them and frontline people have a chance to suggest them. When I worked as part of the Executive Department's management team under Fred Miller, we launched the "Good Ideas Program" (we couldn't think of a better name), which encouraged fresh thinking and responsible risk-taking. None of the ideas were revolutionary, but many were very good and made a noticeable difference in program efficiency and effectiveness.

•  Risk-taking must be able to pass what I call the "front-page test." You should be able to make a cogent defense of the risk that would stand up in the light of front-page exposure. If an idea couldn't withstand that kind of public scrutiny, it probably isn't worth trying.

•  Reduce a bright idea to writing. The idea may sound good until you start laying it out on paper. When you write about an idea, you will think it through more clearly –  the rationale, the methods, the answers to tough questions and the results you can realistically achieve. If you can fill in those blanks, you probably have an idea worth considering and implementing.

•  Make sure someone is accountable for the good or bad. There will be plenty of people eager to crowd into the picture of a ribbon-cutting, but few willing to be seen on the podium explaining a failure. Make sure the risk has a clear chief risk-taker. Also make sure he or she won't be tossed to the wolves if there is a failure.

If lawmakers want public managers to take reasonable risks, they need to give them the elbow room to succeed or fail and not pounce on them if they fail. They need to accept some of Dick Hughes' advice and regard failure as a step toward ultimate success.

That may be harder to do for the news media, but at least reporters and editors can provide a context for risk-taking and explore lessons learned, not just scapegoats to blame.

Risk-taking will always be risky. That's why you need to do everything possible to make sure the benefits outweigh the risk and responsible risk-takers aren't skewered for taking risks.

[This blog was based on a post written by CFM Senior Partner Dave Fiskum for his personal blog, Perspective from the 19th Hole, and it draws on his extensive experience working for state government and as an Oregon lobbyist.]


Untimely Death Sparks Thoughts of Life

Whenever there is a death of a friend, thoughts often travel ironically to the meaning of life. Such is the case as Salem-area community leader Mike McLaran died of a heart attack while jogging last weekend at age 53.

McLaran, who retired a couple years ago as the admired CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, embodied traits in life to which all of us can aspire. Tributes have poured in from throughout the Mid-Willamette Valley from all sorts of residents who found Mike be an inspiring leader who didn't take credit for accomplishments, but deflected credit to others, often mentoring them to make contributions of their own.

In a column in the Statesman-Journal, Editorial Page Editor Dick Hughes said, "One mark of a leader is the ability to recognize, understand and learn from one’s mistakes — and to forgive. Mike exemplified these traits. In later years, he and I sometimes talked about how we could have handled situations differently. Mike was a leader, whether during his 16 years as CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, in his subsequent community involvement or in his devotion to his family. His death on Saturday hit the community hard. Obviously, that was because he was so involved in the Salem area, so accessible and so appreciated. But I also think it’s because true leadership is so rare."

Hughes went on to suggest that "society offers many pseudo-leaders: People who confuse having titles with exerting leadership. Men and women who lust to be part of the “in” crowd — the movers and shakers — but falsely equate that camaraderie with leadership. People who mistake conducting meetings for making progress. People who manage organizations but don’t lead them."