Forty Oregonians, just under half the size of the Legislature, will meet online during the next six weeks to help chart a course for the state's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Chosen at random and reflective of the population, they will take part in a statewide assembly that mirrors Oregon's decade-long citizen review process of selected ballot initiatives. They will listen to experts and each other, hear arguments and come up with a set of facts and recommendations about next steps.
But the executive director of Healthy Democracy, one of the groups involved in organizing the effort, said there will be at least one big difference between this assembly and past review panels.
"It's a subject where people can bring their own lens to it, how they are experiencing it (pandemic) in their community," Robin Teater said in an interview. "Most people will have some information about COVID-19 issues … and be able to speak to them. This issue allows them to come to a public judgment, not just public opinion.
"I think it would be good for lawmakers to hear what their judgment is, not just to rely on public opinion polls."
After a pilot project in 2008, Healthy Democracy has conducted what are known as Citizens Initiative Reviews for selected ballot measures every election year since 2010. They began in Oregon, which incorporates their facts and conclusions in the official state voters pamphlet/guide, and similar panels now operate in California and Massachusetts.
Those panels, each consisting of 20 voters chosen at random to reflect the population, meet for a few days. Participants are paid for their time, travel, lodging and meals. The most recent panels were in 2016, when the much-debated Measure 97 to impose new business taxes was on a statewide ballot, and in 2018, when a $653 million housing bond was on the ballot in three Portland-area counties.
For the Nov. 3 general election, it appears only two initiative measures will qualify for the ballot — along with two referrals by the Legislature — that will result in the fewest initiatives on any general-election ballot since 1974, when there was just one initiative.
But this assembly will be larger — about half as large as the 90-member Legislature — and all meetings will be virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Each weekly session will be two hours through Aug. 13.
Unlike the ballot initiatives, however, Teater said this assembly will have freedom to choose its focus for the coronavirus pandemic, guided by lines of inquiry suggested by two state senators — Democrat Jeff Golden of Ashland and Republican Bill Hansell of Athena.
"They will narrow the questions down to the one they want to address most urgently as a panel, and the process will all be online," Teater said.
Healthy Democracy will be aided by Oregon's Kitchen Table, which has developed online platforms for virtual gatherings such as this assembly. The group is part of the National Policy Consensus Center, based at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. Its work was a 2015 finalist by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for innovations in American government.
Teater said one of the opportunities with a larger group of 40 is for discussions with eight groups of five people each, plus a moderator, to review various issues in the pandemic.
She said the group is still smaller than the 100 that is typical of similar assemblies in Australia, France, Germany and Great Britain, and Healthy Democracy staffers have observed them.
"We have been able to understand how to create a good dialogue, even with a group of that size," she said.
Healthy Democracy also has had recent experience with a citizen panel review of an issue other than a ballot measure. In 2019, the Milwaukie City Council sought advice as members considered whether compensation for elected officials should be increased — always a tricky topic for them — and a 20-member panel of Milwaukie residents weighed in and offered recommendations. That process was in-person, as opposed to online.
"Almost every single academic institution in the United States has had to go virtual suddenly, so we have had the good fortune to learn from what they have done — and we are also learning while we are doing it," Teater said.
But the new statewide effort will draw observers from nine universities, all outside Oregon. The Oregon Citizens Initiative Review has undergone studies by Colorado State University.
Teater said the researchers have concluded that the review process has had one unanticipated effect over the years.
"One of the effects of this process is that it has the salutary effect of increasing trust between citizens and their government," she said. "Just by virtue of knowing that this process exists increases a sense of trust.
"Trust in government seems to be at issue in many communities. It's not just the national political scene, Oregon or even local communities. It has been measured as diminishing over the years and is a longtime trend."
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