Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ORS 192

Our government is supposed to be responsive to the people, and that responsiveness is protected by two principles:
  • The workings of government should be visible to the public.
  • If the public doesn't like what it sees, it can replace the government.
Oregon has a law called ORS 192 which guarantees public visibility into the workings of government by making most government proceedings and documents public. (If you don't like what you see, you should check out the processes for election and recall of elected officials in ORS 249.)

I've been studying ORS 192 since many parts of it apply to me when I take office. For example, all my email related to my work on City Council will be public record, and can be requested if you are really bored some day. Remember, that rule also applies to email you send to me about city business, so be civil! You also have the right to watch us work at any of our meetings (with very few exceptions). I highly recommend you do it at least once-- we meet every other Monday at 6PM. You can check the agenda online to pick a meeting which includes something you care about.

Here are some interesting facts about the meeting laws:
  • City Councilors need to avoid getting together in groups of 4 or more except during scheduled meetings. A group of 4 council members could make decisions which would be illegal if they haven't provided for the public to view the deliberations.
  • Conference calls are public meetings. The public has a right to listen in.
  • Email is a gray area. Council member have to be careful when they send email to 3 or more other councilors, since the "back and forth" could become the electronic equivalent of a meeting, which needs to be public.
While I'm at it, here's a nice tidbit I found in the ethics rules. Oregon does not have a dollar limit on the amount of food or drink an elected official can accept-- but the official is required to consume the food and drink in the presence of the purchaser. No takeout or doggie bags.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Information Revolution

It's said we are in the middle of a revolution in information technology which is no less significant than the Industrial Revolution. Case and point: I have been trying to learn about housing affordability metrics to follow up on a previous article. One call to a friend who works for the state, and I have the email address of the state's "Housing Analyst." A few hours later an expert economist has answered my basic questions, sent me a boatload of relevant data, and showed me where to find his research and analysis. Any of you remember when research started with a trip to the card catalog at the library?

Of course it will be months before I wade through all the information I have. But I'll share some of the basics. The state measures housing affordability by looking at the percentage of household income which you need to spend on housing. They add up rent or mortgage payments, related taxes, insurance, and utilities. If you are spending 30% or more of your income on these housing costs you are "housing cost burdened." If you are spending 50% or more you are "severely cost burdened."

In the past few months I've seen enough different claims about the median home price to know this isn't an easy number to capture. But even if you do a really good job measuring median home sales price over some period of time, you don't get the whole picture:
  • It ignores mortgage interest rates. At a lower interest rate you can afford a larger mortgage.
  • It ignores the rental market. 52% of housing units in Hood River are renter occupied. Despite the dream of home ownership, most of us live in rentals at some point in our lives.
  • It assumes the sales over the period are representative of the current housing stock. In fact as we go through real estate cycles different sectors of the market are active each month.
I'll repeat the disclaimer I displayed earlier: I am not suggesting we don't have a problem. We all know that homes prices have shot up much faster than income. But to make good public policy we need a much richer understanding of the problem. Fortunately the information revolution has provided us with plenty of sources to mine for that better understanding.