Building Personal Relationships in an Impersonal World

By Representative Mark Owens
The Oregon Way Blog | February 16, 2021

Three days before the short legislative session began in 2020, I was sworn in as State Representative for House District 60. I took an oath to protect our Constitution and represent my constituents, and made clear my priority was to build relationships—authentic, genuine, bipartisan relationships. On my to-do list: meet everyone in the building, get to know them as people—not just legislators, and work together on serious issues, regardless of their party or district number.

That quickly became challenging. Within weeks of the 2020 session starting, legislative negotiations came to a halt, legislators parted ways to their districts, and the session ended in a tense and terse manner. Shortly thereafter, the Coronavirus pandemic came to Oregon in full swing, closing the state, shuttering our businesses and schools, and sending us home to serve and lead the state from our living rooms during the most difficult time our state has ever faced.

One year in, not much has changed. Sure, we’ve adapted and learned new methods to connect and developed innovative ways to get some work done, but not nearly enough and certainly not enough to connect nor legislate well.

While serving Eastern Oregon, with limited travel to Salem, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to fully connect with my colleagues, even on an official level. As I started the 2021 session, a year into being a State Representative, I requested a meeting with the Chair of one of our committees to discuss our policy agenda for the session. Ten minutes into the conversation, this colleague asked who I was—was I parent? A teacher? A constituent? No. I was a fellow State Representative and had been for over a year.

Our inability to connect puts a cap on our ability to govern. Good public policy requires public involvement. Great public policy requires personal relationships.

Remote meetings are not conducive to personal relationships. You can’t read body language through a screen or get to know someone in 15 minutes over the phone. But the session goes on. We’re scheduled for 12-hour days at our computers in virtual meetings or on video conference calls. And, despite the fact that some of us have never met before in person, we’re collectively charged with determining the best policies for the future of our state and the people who depend on us to get it right.

Personal relationships are especially important to collaborating across party lines. That’s why bipartisanship becomes even more difficult in these circumstances. If and when we do get a chance to break away from virtual committees or statewide conference calls that time is spent with our Caucus or Caucus members working in silos to see how we’ll handle the next twist and turn. There’s literally no time in the day to reach out to the other side. It’s not on purpose and it’s not political—it’s just the only system we have right now.

We literally can’t reach across the aisle and even though I truly believe the majority of us want to build those relationships and we try, inevitably we’re interrupted and invariably, there’s another 15-minute meeting waiting for us at the top of the hour.

Bipartisanship now hinges on the strength of our Internet connection and our willingness to spend even more time on a computer. Simply put, though bipartisan was never easy—it’s become a heck of a lot harder. I long for the days when I can walk the halls with my colleagues, pop into their office, bring them a coffee, and hash out a pragmatic response to an issue we’re facing. As I said great public policy requires personal relationships – not only with other officials, but also with the public. In addition to our own challenges of working together as legislators, are the challenges of working with the public. The building is closed to the public for the time being, and while it’s touted somewhat fairly that virtual platforms mean increased access for those Oregonians who couldn’t normally drive the distance or afford time off work to testify, that’s only when the virtual platform actually works, and that Oregonian actually has sufficient Internet.

All this adds up to substantial barriers to creating great public policy. We now function in a world of black boxes, misused mute buttons, fake backgrounds, sometimes with faces and mostly with names or phone numbers on a screen, and that’s if the technology is working for everyone that day. What we’ve increased in virtual efficiency, we’ve lost in interpersonal relationships. What we’ve gained in the ability to quickly connect, we’ve lost in depth of those connections.

All hope isn’t lost, and it isn’t all bad. Great public policy is still possible, but requires greater intentionality in reaching other Oregonians. Over the last ten months, me and two other legislators have held bi-monthly or monthly live virtual town halls that have reached thousands of Oregonians, far exceeding what would have been possible had we been hosting them in-person. I know several of my constituents have been able to utilize technology to testify and engage with legislative committees in ways they hadn’t before. Hopefully, these extra measures will not be required for too much longer. Safety precautions have been implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 and it’s slowing. We’re hoping the Capitol can open to the public sometime later this spring. These are all good things.

We’ve learned a lot over the course of navigating this pandemic. Importantly, I think we’ve learned we previously undervalued the power of personal relationships and underestimated the need for them in authentic policy making. We assume legislating is a rigid duty, one of paper-pushing and legal debate, meeting agendas and complex amendments, pushing the red or green buttons when it’s time to vote. Certainly, those are elements, but public policy is much more than that. The real heart of legislating comes in building trust, having conversations, and working together to put Oregon on the best path forward.

When “Zoom times” end, we will have an opportunity to also end the idea that our Caucuses are the extent of our Capitol community. Consider this an open invitation to host a town hall (virtual or personal) with any member of the State Legislature when “normal times” resume. We, as legislators, need to mirror to Oregonians what personal relationships in politics look like. If we can work together as friends, we can serve as role models to a state that deserves people to come before politics.


Representative Mark Owens is the Republican State Representative for Oregon’s House District 60 which includes all of Baker, Grant, Harney, and Malheur Counties and parts of Lake County. Mark is a local farmer, small business owner, Crane School Board Member, recent Harney County Commissioner, and husband and father. During the 2021 Legislative Session, Mark serves as Vice-Chair of the House Committee on Water, and on the House Education, Energy and Environment, and Human Services Committees.

 

Letter to Governor Brown – Elected Leaders Ask for a Conversation

Oregon State Seal

CLICK FOR PDF VERSION

November 18, 2020

Honorable Governor Kate Brown
900 Court St. NE, Room 254
Salem, OR 97301

Dear Governor Brown,

We appreciate and understand the challenges you have faced as our Governor during this challenging time in Oregon. We have seen improvements in the response to COVID-19 and the executive decisions you have made that have slowed the spread of the virus. In our roles as state legislators, county commissioners and judges, and regional leaders, we’ve encouraged every effort available to do the same.

A one-size-fits-all approach to shutting down the state was logical and appropriate in March when the onset of this pandemic was new and was unknown. Over time, we have learned, adapted, adjusted and improved. Keeping counties and regions in a Phase II for an indefinite period of time is a one size fits all approach that does not work any longer.

It is time to re-evaluate the metrics and the ever-changing goal posts related to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our rural, semi-rural, eastern and frontier communities. We have shut down for months, we have met the metrics required, we have followed the goal posts as they’ve moved, we have adhered to the rules, we have slowed the spread—and yet, our counties, communities, small businesses, K-12 schools, childcare and colleges, health departments and more, sit in a stale and stagnant state without forward progress. We have done and continue to do all that is within our capacity to slow the spread of COVID-19, and now, some of our border counties are being directly affected by decisions and actions from outside our state over which we have no control.

This is not a sustainable position for our communities.

Our COVID-19 cases will ebb and flow over the next several months just as they have over the last several weeks. This metric is not a reliable indicator of the situation. The metric that is most important to reconsider at this time is the original goal of ensuring there is adequate hospital capacity and not overwhelming our medical facilities. We have met this goal from the onset and continue to meet this goal. This must be the benchmark for future conversations on how we learn to live with COVID-19.

There is still much we don’t know about COVID-19, but what we do know is the continued closure and limitations under these guidelines disproportionally impact women, single-parent homes, rural communities and small businesses. Our students are struggling in their education as well as their mental and emotional fitness, families have been stressed to the maximum, and decade-old businesses that are the lifeblood of our Oregon communities have closed for good.

Over the past few weeks, we have safely met with school superintendents, the ODE Director, county sheriffs, county public health authorities and agency representatives to discuss how we move forward.

We must make significant changes to the way our systems are being managed going forward. It is not realistic or sustainable to continue in Phase I or II, as currently described, for our districts, counties and communities wherein.

We propose four areas for change:

  1. Restaurants and bars: Our hospitality industry, restaurants and bars must be able to stay open. The data shared by OHA does not show any indication that our restaurants and bars are the cause of increased cases. In addition, our hospitality industry is responsible for employing tens of thousands and Oregonians and keeping our already-fragile economy moving. Our restaurants and bars need to be able to extend their hours beyond the arbitrary closing time of 10:00pm and need to safely expand their indoor occupancy especially as we head into the holiday season and winter when indoor restaurants, lodging and tourism activity will grow. We are at risk for nearly 40% of our remaining businesses closing in the next six months if we do not allow for reasonable expansion of these services and industries.
  2. Schools: Our schools need to be allowed to fully re-open for in-classroom learning, and our students need to be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. All teachers, students, staff, and volunteers that want to return to in-person learning should be able to do so in a safe manner. All teachers, students, staff, and volunteers that desire to continue CDL should be able to do so. If it is safe for college athletes to return to sports, assuredly it is safe for high school students. Parents need to be able to return to work, and our students and teachers need the stability of the classroom.
  3. State Agencies: We need to reopen our state agencies at all levels, including and specifically DMVs, across the state. We would argue, and assume you would agree, that our state agencies and state employees are essential. These agencies are funded with public dollars and our public needs full access to these essential services.
  4. Religious institutions: Release our churches and places of worship. While outliers will exist as the exception, most churches and places of worship will be and have been more than scrupulous in protecting their congregations from harm from COVID-19. Give pastors, religious leaders and governing boards the latitude to exercise their best judgement for safety.

We have been living with extreme difficulty with COVID-19 for over eight months and have taken the necessary precautions during this time, but we have another six, 12, 18 months, or longer to go as we continue to understand this pandemic. Further shutdowns are not sustainable. We must adapt our Phases to allow for therapeutic remedies that appear to be on the horizon.

At this juncture, by not allowing our kids to go to school, our parents and families to work, our agencies to open for services, and our small businesses to reopen for business, we are failing our state and devastating the lives of tens of thousands of Oregonians. Our rural communities are being left out and left behind. As leaders, we are failing our constituents and the future of our state’s survival is at risk.

We urge you to consider a more realistic approach and set a course of action that allows for freedoms, safety, and sustainability to work in conjunction with one another. In order to accomplish this, we must empower our local public health authorities to work with the local elected leadership, both of whom fully know local situations, to work together and in partnership with the OHA to move forward with what can become a regional version of Phase II-A and Phase II-B.

We are having these conversations now, and more importantly, we are taking the necessary steps to develop these plans so we can act and move our unique regions forward towards a sustainable, viable future. Something has to change, and we’re prepared to move ahead.

We have a simple ask.

As the leaders chosen by Oregonians to represent their best interests and be their advocates, throughout and across our beautiful state, we would ask that the Governor and Governor’s office participate in these meetings and work with us, assess the proposals and plans we put forward, and consider the options we will be recommending for your consideration and approval.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Senator Lynn Findley
Senate District 30

Rep. Mark Owens
House District 60

Senator Bill Hansell
Senate District 29

Senator Kim Thatcher
Senate District 13

Senator Fred Girod
Senate District 9

Senator Brian Boquist
Senate District 12

Rep. Shelly Boshart-Davis
House District 15

Rep. Carl Wilson
House District 3

Senator Chuck Thomsen
Senate District 26

Rep. Mike Nearman
House District 23

Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson
House District 55

Rep. Greg Barretto
House District 58

Rep. Bill Post
House District 25

Rep. Elect and Commissioner Lily Morgan
House District 3

Rep. Raquel Moore-Green
House District 19

Rep. Rick Lewis
House District 18

Rep-Elect Bobby Levy
House District 58

Bill Harvey
Baker County Commissioner

Mark Bennett
Baker County Commissioner

Bruce Nichols
Baker County Commissioner

Jerry Brummer
Crook County Commissioner

Patti Adair
Deschutes County Commissioner

Tony DeBone
Deschutes County Commissioner

Jim Hamsher
Grant County Commissioner

Sam Palmer
Grant County Commissioner

Pete Runnels
Harney County Commissioner

Patty Dorroh
Harney County Commissioner

Kristen Shelman
Harney County Commissioner

Mae Huston
Jefferson County Commissioner

Donnie Boyd
Klamath County Commissioner

Derrick DeGroot
Klamath County Commissioner

Kelley Minty Morris
Klamath County Commissioner

Mark Albertson
Lake County Commissioner

Brad Winters
Lake County Commissioner

James Williams
Lake County Commissioner

Donald Hodge
Malheur County Commissioner

Larry Wilson
Malheur County Commissioner

Dan Joyce
Malheur County Commissioner

Melissa Lindsay
Morrow County Commissioner

Don Russell
Morrow County Commissioner

Jim Doherty
Morrow County Commissioner

Todd Nash
Polk County Commissioner

Craig Pope
Polk County Commissioner

Bill Elfering
Umatilla County Commissioner

George Murdock
Umatilla County Commissioner

John Shafer
Umatilla County Commissioner

Paul Anderes
Union County Commissioner

Matt Scarfo
Union County Commissioner

Donna Beverage
Union County Commissioner

Susan Roberts
Wallowa County Commissioner

Mary Starrett
Yamhill County Commissioner

New metrics make it easier for rural Oregon schools to reopen

By Emily Cureton (OPB) and Erin Ross (OPB)
Aug. 12, 2020
Click here for original OPB article.

The Oregon Department of Education has announced new health metrics that make it easier for rural schools to reopen. But districts are still trying to figure out what these benchmarks mean.

How and when Oregon kids will go back to classrooms is still an open question, with the opening of school fast approaching. This week, the state’s Department of Education bowed to pressure from rural community leaders and released new standards for in-person instruction in the state’s most sparsely-populated areas.

ODE Director Colt Gill said that the goal of these updated protocols is to allow rural schools the flexibility to reopen their doors while ensuring that any school-related outbreaks remain small.

“We want to make sure no local health authority would be overwhelmed by contact tracing. We want to reduce the number of students and staff interacting,” said Gill.

Counties with populations of less than 30,000 will be able to open, even if they don’t meet the statewide standard of fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 residents. Those counties can open schools that serve fewer than 250 students if certain criteria are met. Conditions include limiting the total number of cases in a county over the previous three weeks to no more than 30. If more than half of those cases occurred in the final week of that three-week period schools would have to remain closed, because it could indicate increasing community transmission.

There can’t be any transmission happening in the school community and only schools where less than 10% of students travel from another area will qualify.

In counties with a population of fewer than six people per square mile, schools can reopen regardless of size if there have been fewer than 30 cases total in the last three weeks. The schools can’t serve a “significant number” of students commuting from other districts, and there can’t be active outbreaks in commuters’ hometowns.

“We’ll take what we can get given the circumstances, and we’re thankful the state was willing to hear the feedback of our rural communities and find a common-sense solution,” said Crook County Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson in a Tuesday press release.

ODE’s revisions mean that in her district, two of Central Oregon’s smallest schools — Paulina and Brothers — will open their doors next month. Crook County officials are among school administrators across the state scrambling to decipher the guidelines and decide which facilities can have kids attend classes in-person.

Adding to the uncertainty, ODE officials have said they expect to update the guidance a few more times before school starts.

“I think it’s a great first step,” said Rep. Mark Owens of the revised guidance for small population counties. The Republican from Crane represents Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and part of Lake counties — a vast swath of Oregon with a small fraction of the state population, where statewide rulemaking has long been a political target.

For months, Owens and other rural lawmakers have been advocating for rural school districts to be allowed to customize reopening plans with local public health officials: “I have no fear of COVID-19 spreading rapidly in our schools. If it does, actions will be taken, proper precautions will be maintained, and we’ll have lessons learned,” he said.

ODE said that rural health departments face unique challenges tracking and containing COVID-19. “For those very low population, but very large geographic counties, that does become a challenge,” said Gill, adding that health departments were consulted when making guidelines and that larger counties do have bigger health departments.

Owens also acknowledged that after years of budget cuts, and in some cases total defunding, many of the rural health departments these school plans now depend on “are not set up to deal with a global pandemic, or be successful without help.”

“The state is going to have to step up with some CARES Act funding in order to make sure that we can give them extra personnel,” Owens added.

Owens is married to a teacher, with a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

“I honestly feel that my family will be safer with the practices in place in school than they are when traveling to Home Depot, or traveling to some of the other things that are allowed currently,” he said.

If residents of one town frequently travel to another for work or to shop, outbreaks in those communities would also cause schools to close.

“We wanted provisions to address rural towns that are more of a bedroom community to a city that might be impacted by COVID-19,” Gill said, “[Local public health authorities] do need to understand if the majority of that community works in or shops in another community that is impacted, they’re not isolated.”

Because some rural towns are far apart or aren’t connected by major roads, some schools can stay open even if there is active community transmission in the county.

“The idea behind this guidance is that some of our very large geographic counties, where towns are spread out, could have an outbreak in one community, and then for thousands of square miles, no outbreaks,” Gill said.

That doesn’t just apply to in-state communities. Officials will also need to take into account outbreaks in nearby communities across state lines.

On the state’s eastern border with Idaho, Malheur County has become a hotspot for the virus in some areas, while other communities remain untouched. At over 10,000-square-miles, it’s the second-largest county in the state and a case study in the complexity of regulating Oregon’s diverse geography.

Zach Olson’s two kids were attending school in Nyssa, where the infection rate is nearly five times the state average, as of last week’s OHA report. It takes over an hour to drive from there, to the school in Jordan Valley, both within Malheur County.

Olson said he’s fortunate to be able to afford a nanny while his family juggles child care, and resentful that other kinds of business reopened before schools.

“Every day I walk by a closed elementary school and then numerous open bars, restaurants, and pot shops. The governor created that situation and it can not stand,” Olson said in an email.

The dad of two boys was critical of how often the guidelines have changed leading up to the start of the fall semester.

“It is great that the governor keeps taking steps towards prioritizing elementary and rural schools, but she is giving us whiplash,” he said.

The updated metrics also include exemptions for rural school districts in more populated counties. For urban schools to reopen, there needs to be less than 10 cases per 100,000 for three consecutive weeks. But rural schools can reopen if the school serves fewer than 250 people if there is no transmission in the community, and if they meet the same case metrics for counties with smaller populations

Many people in Oregon have reported delayed test results in the last month, sometimes waiting for as long as three weeks to find out if they have COVID-19. To make sure counties can identify outbreaks in time to close schools, presumptive cases do not need to be confirmed with a laboratory test to count.

As director of the Oregon Department of Education, Gill has the authority to close a school facility and address any complaints raised about flouting its guidance.

“These actions include the potential to withhold State School Fund (SSF) payments if needed and as a means of last resort,” according to the state guidelines.

Cultural Trust

July 22, 2020

Brian Rogers
Executive Director
Oregon Cultural Trust
775 Summer Street NE, Suite 200
Salem, OR 97301

Dear Director Rodgers,

As you begin the process for developing the guidance for the Oregon Business Development Department’s Statewide Cultural Support program, we want to highlight the critical cultural, economic and historical role county fairs and the County and Tribal Coalitions play within eastern and central Oregon.

The value our county fairs and fairgrounds bring to our communities cannot be overstated. These facilities provide year-round support for our entire community, not just during “fair week.” Fairgrounds across Oregon support their school districts, and agriculture and 4-H youth programs throughout the year with no-cost facility usage, not to mention the support these activities provide to small businesses and small business owners that rely on these activities. Nonagricultural programs such as dance, Junior ROTC, rodeo, and all traditional sports teams receive year-round fundraising support through use of these facilities. We urge you to recognize this value, prioritize these cultural venues and provide budgetary flexibility so that our communities can find
creative solutions that meet the needs of our communities.

Please work closely with our County and Tribal Coalitions when prioritizing the needs of local communities. Providing direct allocations to our County and Tribal Coalitions will ensure local participation during the vetting process and will maintain local expertise in the prioritization of projects.

Lastly, we ask that the Oregon Business Development Department maintain an equitable distribution of the Cultural Support dollars throughout the entire state. The Emergency Board has already provided direct allocation of $24 million to venues throughout this state. The remaining $27 can’t be viewed in isolation. The rich traditions of Oregon aren’t limited to Portland Metro. We must preserve and protect culture in every corner of this state by making sure the entire $50 million is the lens we use when determining a fair distribution.

We thank you for the critical work that you’re doing to preserve the cultural and venue needs of our communities during this COVID crisis.

Sincerely,

Cultural Trust Signatures

Sen. Findley and Rep. Owens share concerns with Governor Brown over early release

Honorable Governor Brown,

We write with collective concern over your recent decision to approve early release for adults in custody who are serving their time in state prisons, due to possible susceptibility to the Coronavirus.  Like you, our hope is that all Oregonians are safe, healthy and well during this unique and challenging time. However, early release of adults in custody will not prevent this exposure; the chance of contracting the virus in public is just as great.

Of particular concern is your statement that “In no case may an adult in custody be released if they present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community.”  Any adult in custody being granted early release poses a risk to the community because of the drastic underfunding of community corrections and support services.  Adults in custody will need housing, medical care, parole supervision, mental health services, job training and support, etc.  Our community services are already overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the incredible number of people who are out of work. What’s more, adults in custody would already have these services provided by the Oregon Department of Corrections while serving out their sentences in prison.

Our already-overloaded vital community services with be further strained by this decision.  Furthermore, releasing adults in custody during a pandemic increases the possibility of losing track of those individuals who would need to be monitored upon release.

Our legislative districts include both the largest and smallest prisons in the state, including the Snake River Correctional Facility (Ontario), Powder River Correctional Facility (Baker City), Deer Ridge Correctional Institution (Madras), and Warner Creek Correctional Facility (Lakeview).  Granting early release for even a few adults in custody from any of these facilities would be detrimental to the surrounding communities and support services.

We urge you reconsider your decision to allow an early release of adults in custody.  Our communities cannot provide the tools necessary for these individuals to succeed upon release at this time.

Sincerely,
Lynn Findley
State Senator, Oregon Senate District 30

Mark Owens
State Representative, House District 60

Cc: Director Colette Peters, ODOC

Lawmakers talk about pandemic’s effect on business, health care

Larry Meyer | Argus Observer | April 10

ONTARIO — State Senate District 30 and House Districts 59 and 60 held a joint virtual town hall Thursday, primarily discussing the issue that is keeping everyone apart, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy and health care.

The session hosted by Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Reps. Mark Owens, R-Crane, and Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, was held via video and phone conference with invited participants.
Leading off in answering a question about the impact on business, Findley noted that “small business is the back bone of our economy,” and the need to is put people back to work.

The pandemic could bring a change in how we do business, he said, emphasizing, “we have to protect our people.”

Commenting that unemployment insurance applicants now number 88,000, Findley said people need to get a check for people to live on. He also said, the officials need to protect markets for what people are producing.

“You have to figure out how to keep people in their houses,” he said. “You have to figure how to keep commerce going.”

One of the things needed to move business forward, according to Owens, is to draw down the regulations which have been put in place because of the virus. Bonham said the Republican lawmakers are drafting a series of letters to Gov. Kate Brown, including one as for support of rural hospitals.

“We need to have a healthy, functioning health care apparatus,” he said. Bonham says he is appalled state leaders have not taken more action to protect the health-care providers.
On education, he said students would be ready to transition to the next level next year and the state the should be improving the technology to help learning.

Owens expressed concerns about rural hospitals, saying hospitals are bleeding cash. “If we lose any of the hospitals, we will lose the community,” he said. More testing is needed to track the virus and a vaccine is needed to control it, Owens said.

Bonham said a special session to address budget issues the costs of dealing with the pandemic will probably not happen until the next revenue forecast in May, pushing a session toward the end of May and possibly into June.

Findley said among things the three lawmakers are doing is keeping in contact with the county commissioners about county needs.