NEWS

A force in ethics retires 

As one of the state’s longest-serving agency directors, Ron Bersin, who led the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC) for the last 17 years, is retiring. 

While his official retirement was in Nov. 2023, Bersin remained in the position until a successor was chosen, which happened on Jan. 11, when Susan Myers was appointed as the new director. 

Taking over officially on Jan. 22, Myers will have a slate of important goals starting off with reviewing and updating any rules, getting herself and her team up to speed on the current issues as well as crafting new legislation regarding being able to give more advice to public officials outside of just training. 

Having joined the commission in 2018 and currently serving as its compliance and education coordinator, Myers is still awaiting results from a background check before confirmation. 

Serving as one of the top investigators on the commission, Bersin spoke glowingly of his successor noting that if Myers had one flaw, it is that she wants to do everything herself. 

“She’s going to have to rely on those folks and make her life a little easier,” Bersin said. 

Growing up in Silverton, Bersin’s first job was working with his brothers, Ray and Roger Bersin, at their family’s paving business, Pacific Road and Driveway. 

An alum of Oregon State, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, Bersin is also certified in Public Management and has multiple years of budgetary experience as the director of Oregon Board of Tax Practitioners. 

Bersin and his wife Tammy, who have been married for more than 30 years, have two children and four grandchildren. 

In his off-time, Bersin enjoys golfing and hunting. 

He owns a hunting property in John Day, Oregon where he soon plans to hunt for ducks as well as other animals on the property. 

Bersin and his wife work with Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit centered around wetlands wildlife and habitat conservation. 

Bersin also described his passion for safari, going on big-game hunting trips to Africa by way of Johannesburg in South Africa last year and intends to go again this year. 

As the former OGEC director Bersin has had a massive impact on how public officials in Oregon operate. 

Broadly speaking, the OGEC is tasked with investigating claims of malfeasance and enforcing ethics laws within the state as it pertains to appointed or elected public officials. 

The OGEC does this through a steady flow of training made available to public officials as well as upholding three main functions. 

According to Bersin, these functions are creating and upholding the state’s ethics laws, controlling and monitoring the lobbying that occurs with legislators and managing how public meetings are handled. 

Bersin described how even these functions were hard won as, prior to his tenure as director, the ethics commission had minimal funding. 

“Nobody’s going to get rid of the ethics commission, but they are taking the money away,” Bersin said. 

This underfunding was extreme as in, according to Bersin, 2006 when he started the total budget for the department was around $600,000 while today it sits at more than $6 miillion. 

In order to fix this, Bersin worked with then-Senator Kate Brown to create SB 10, a law that mandated local government planning and zoning all incorporated land within a city. 

This law served as the model for the ethics commission to gain a more stable funding source as now, 50% of the commission’s funding comes from the state government while the other half comes from cities around Oregon as a service fee on a per capita basis. 

Bersin stated how cities within this model ended up paying less as a city like Portland would only pay around $1,500 per year to maintain the commission. 

Bersin described the importance of having organizations like the ethics commission as it serves as a foil to possible wrongdoing, both intentional and unintentional. 

The OGEC fulfills a variety of important watchdog functions for the state. 

These include: ensuring public officials cannot use their government position for personal financial gain, officials cannot receive a gift over $50 or receive gifts that could influence their decision-making as it pertains to legislation 

The commission also ensures public officials must declare potential conflicts of interest as well as statements of economic interest or what they have money invested in. 

In regards to ethics, Bersin stated that transparency was most important as statement of interest forms are now put online, as are most of Oregon’s public meetings increasing access for all. 

Those interested in looking at the economic interest forms of their own public officials can go to oregon.gov/ogec/public-records/Pages/SEIS.aspx for more information. 

“Way back in 2015, we switched from a paper form to an electronic form. The real purpose of those forms is not to sit in my office in a file cabinet, it’s really for the public to use them and instead of them having to do a public records request and ask for those forms now they’re online,” Bersin said. 

Bersin also described how, until recently, schools served as a place where millions of dollars went yearly though they displayed little transparency in how that money was spent until recently now that school officials are required to file statements of economic interest. 

“It was always kind of funny to me that school boards didn’t file. The school district may have hundreds of millions of dollars and they didn’t have to file,” Bersin said. 

In regards to lobbying, Bersin told the story of how the beer and wine industries in Oregon and how legislators were treated to trips and dinner by them. 

After complaints from constituents, the ethics commission created a law that determined that lobbyists and those they lobby must report the trips they go on, the activities they do while traveling as well as the overall cost of the trip. 

Now, before a trip, legislators must go to the clerk of the house and ensure they get the proper sanctioning for trips provided by lobbyists as long as the trips revolve around educational or fact-finding purposes. 

Bersin described the commission helping monitor public meetings and extending those benefits to citizens have increased due to the OGEC conducting ethics audits. 

In addition to the legal paperwork public officials must fill out, there is also a requirement to eliminate non-public, or serial meetings, have meetings recorded as well as ensuring they remain transparent when conducting official business. 

Bersin stated that ethics laws governing how public officials must operate within the law have existed for decades. 

But they were not well-regulated. 

In some cases, when a citizen had a complaint against a public official they would have to take the official to court themselves and pay themselves rather than having a body to handle such cases. 

Now, citizens can find their city’s meetings recorded, for Keizerites that link is here: keizer.org/ MeetingMaterials, as well as having a place where they can report issues of ethics violations: oregon.gov/ ogec/pages/default.aspx.

Those interested can also call OGEC staff at 503-378-5105 or email them at [email protected]

Preferring to work at the office, Bersin’s day-to-day work flow involved managing his investigators and other staff while conducting their duties, though how that looks has been changed by the pandemic as the OGEC utilizes a hybrid work-schedule. 

Oftentimes, he finds himself overlooking the various training templates his staff develops, the advice they give out to officials as well as the timeliness and quality of that work. 

Managing the multi-million dollar budget is another key feature and expertise of Bersin’s, taking into account his tax budget background as is responding to the many calls the OGEC receives daily. 

“I’m a big believer in picking up the phone. You have to be available,” Bersin said. 

Remaining responsive has aided him in his career, as in many cases the advice people need is just a quick conversation about a particular action and whether it is the right thing to do when conducting a meeting, though if it requires more that is no issue either. 

“I may have to research laws. I may have to talk to the Department of Justice about my thinking on what my interpretation is, but we are going to answer those phones,” 

The other major change involved whose prerogative it was to fill a majority of those on the board. Before it was the governor’s role to fill the commission, now the governor appoints one member along with the house and senate for each political party creating nine total members. 

Prompted by the ethics issues surrounding former-Governor Kitzahber and his wife Cylvia Hayes, the OGEC underwent a restructuring in how someone was appointed to it. 

The commission gained two more people on the commission in 2015, bringing the number to nine. 

Bersin also oversaw the extension of how long commissioners could serve on the board, extending it to two 4-year terms. 

Despite the notion that commissioners are chosen by political parties, Bersin stated that partisanship is left at the door in their office, even noting that many times even commissioners on the same board are unable to guess each other’s true political leaning. 

“I think if anybody goes back and listens to the recordings when Governor Kitzhaber was before us, I believe some of the Democratic appointees were much tougher on him than the Republican ones,” Bersin said. 

When asked why he is retiring, Bersin stated, “my wife’s retired and there’s things that I want to do.” 

Those things involve spending more time with each other as well as traveling, both to their property in John Day as well as back for another safari in Africa. 

Bersin mentioned that despite his retirement, remaining involved in his community is crucial. 

As a current member of the Keizer Planning Commission and a former member of the Budget Committee, Bersin has brought his extensive experience to bear for some time here. 

His plans for public offices appear to end there for now, however, Bersin does note that he remains open to giving advice should it be needed as, according to him, his phone number hasn’t changed. 

Contact Quinn Stoddard
[email protected] or 503-390-1051

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