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Key legislators unite behind a plan to study university boards.

Byline: Saul Hubbard The Register-Guard

SALEM - A bill backed by several Lane County lawmakers that would have established independent governing boards for the University of Oregon and Portland State University this year is dead for this legislative session.

Instead, key lawmakers are backing another bill, House Bill 4061, that would create a special committee to examine the issue of university governance between April and November.

That committee, made up of eight lawmakers and two members of Gov. John Kitzhaber's new Oregon Education Investment Board, would be charged with developing legislation for the 2013 session that would allow all seven of Oregon's public universities to set up independent boards, if they want to.

Rep. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat and co- chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said that the special committee would examine "best practices" for how much power to give the boards over hiring and firing of university presidents, setting tuition and fees, managing university finances, buying property, approving capital improvement projects, and university funding models.

HB 4061 was voted to the House floor Tuesday.

Dembrow said the concept of creating a board for the UO and PSU in 2012 was "the result of strong emotions" after the state Board of Higher Education fired UO President Richard Lariviere late last year.

That situation "brought more urgency to the issue," he said. "But it also underscores the need to do this deliberately. ... It is not a discussion that should happen in the heat and horse-trading of any session."

Rep. Mark Johnson, a Hood River Republican and the other co-chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said HB 4061 represented "the best work we can put forward right now."

"We had to walk a fine line between going too far, too fast and not giving enough clarity for what we wanted the (special) committee to achieve," he said. "We needed to take a measured approach."

Johnson added that he was particularly excited by a stipulation in the bill that the special committee examine the possibility of consolidating some public bodies that govern Oregon's higher education system.

"We're looking at getting more independence for our universities, and I hope that means we can make the overall system more efficient," he said.

Rep. Phil Barnhart, a Eugene Democrat who sponsored the bill to create UO and PSU boards this year, said he would have preferred to see his bill advance. But he was happy that his "overall goal of getting a statewide independent board for the UO is moving forward."

Rep. Val Hoyle, a Eugene Democrat who co-sponsored Barnhart's bill, also said she was on board with HB 4061.

"I don't think we could have put forward a bill (this session) that could have passed," she said. "These things take time. There are appropriate concerns about the process ... and doing something just for the UO."

However, Hoyle added that HB 4061 would give "clarity to what the ultimate outcome will be," and that's what most of the UO community wants.

Kitzhaber indicated last week that he was pursuing a "trajectory" of creating an independent board for the UO in 2013, should the Legislature not bring him a bill before then.

Another change that won't happen this year is the proposed expansion of the ways elected officials could communicate outside of public meetings, potentially allowing them to privately discuss how they intend to vote.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat, said his concept - a result of a ruling last year that Lane County commissioners violated state's public meeting law by privately discussing a proposed budget decision in a series of one-on-one meetings - "did not have the clarity it needed to move forward."

Prozanski said his intention had been to rewrite the law to allow "communication between members of a governing that are one-on-one" as well as to "reflect the means of communication we have today."

But difficulties in defining the such communications proved too much of an obstacle to overcome, he said.

Prozanski said he would continue to work on the concept after a session with representatives of the newspaper industry, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Association of Oregon Counties, all of whom expressed an interest in the bill.

Prozanski added that the work group might tackle other sections of the public meetings law that "need to be updated," including the statute of limitations for violations.

He also said the group potentially might look at requiring "some type of disclosure of all communication (between elected officials) on a topic before it is publicly debated."
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Title Annotation:Local News; The special committee would have until November to report on the idea, with action possible in 2013
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 8, 2012
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