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Capital Chatter: Business needs to find its voice

Unions have exuded more influence in Salem, in part because they are united on their agenda.

It's not surprising that turmoil roiled Oregon Business & Industry, the trade group formed by the merger of Associated Oregon Industries and the more-progressive Oregon Business Association. Even with brilliant leadership, merging two distinct cultures is challenging.

Still, this week's ouster of the new organization's first CEO — former state Rep. Mark Johnson — came as a surprise. News reports cited an inappropriate, racially charged comment that Johnson allegedly made about a legislator, as well as upheaval among OBI employees and members.

For a variety of reasons, Johnson was an unusual pick to be OBI president. As with Gov. John Kitzhaber's hiring of Rudy Crew as Oregon's chief education officer, I figured Johnson would turn out to be either an inspired choice or a dismal one. There would be no middle ground.

Crew departed after one year. Johnson's tenure was shorter.

For a long time, public-employee unions have exuded more influence in the Oregon Capitol than the business community. In large part, that is because different businesses and organizations presented different, and sometimes competing, agendas; whereas unions coalesced around specific legislation, putting their differences aside.

That is a lesson for OBI as it seeks a new leader, someone who can bring OBI together internally and externally.

Brown seeks business ideas: Asked last week about her long-awaited plans for revenue reform, Gov. Kate Brown said her focus was on the state budget. She said business folks complain that taxpayer dollars are not being used efficiently and effectively. In response, she will be meeting with business people, asking them to go through the state budget and make recommendations.

An excellent example, Brown said, is her decision to continue having state prisons situated around Oregon — where they contribute to the local economies — instead of saving millions of dollars by having all the prisons in Salem. Brown said she received no pushback from business leaders on that decision.

However, Brown's example might not be the best one. There was talk of expanding Salem prisons in one way or another, but a wholesale transfer of prison facilities back to Salem was never considered. That would have been horrendously expensive and politically improbable. Oregon has progressed from the situation of decades ago when all state prisons were in Salem, and Peter Courtney — then a new politician and now Oregon Senate president — famously described the capital as Oregon's penal colony.

Furthermore, if mismanagement of taxpayer dollars occurs, it's often at the micro level — involving agency decisions. Those are the nuts-and-bolts functions that deserve analysis by business leaders. Is each component, each program and each agency appropriate for 21st century Oregon?

More turnover at the top: Alex Pettit, an appointee of Gov. Kitzhaber, is out as the state's chief information officer.

A press release from the Governor's Office said, "Governor Kate Brown and CIO Alex Pettit mutually agreed that after his service stabilizing several technology challenges for Oregon state agencies and partner jurisdictions, the time is right for a new CIO to be put in place to build on his work and move the Governor's vision for IT governance forward."  

Does any state successfully manage its information-technology projects, or should we go back to manual typewriters? Yes, that's an overstatement, but the majority of IT projects fail in both the private and public sectors.

In fact, the project failure rate in the private sector has been pegged as high as 70 percent. Common problems: human arrogance, turf battles, unrealistic expectations of what technology can achieve, inadequate testing, frequent design changes, miscommunication and overall poor leadership.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress revealed the federal lawmakers' unfamiliarity with technology, let alone social media. That made me wonder whether the same knowledge vacuum exists among Oregon politicians.

Young man in the Senate: State Rep. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, will be sworn in Tuesday to fill the vacancy left by Sen. Jeff Kruse's resignation.

Heard noted that he will be the only millennial in the Oregon Senate. He was born in 1985. The next-youngest senators, Sara Gelser and Rob Wagner, were born in 1973.

In the Oregon House, the youngest members are Diego Hernandez, born in 1987; Heard; and Karin Power, born in 1983.

Buehler fights Brown's taxes: An acquaintance who finds himself on gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler's email list says he's discovered two consistencies about Buehler: He's always bashing Gov. Brown and he's always asking for money.

Buehler, a state representative from Bend, is the presumed Republican frontrunner to challenge Democrat Brown.

His latest campaign missive asks respondents to "Vote for Kate Brown's craziest tax!" After voting in the poll, respondents are invited to donate to Buehler's campaign.

The poll choices are:

• Mom and Pop Business Tax

• Energy Tax

• Inner Tube Tax

• Paddle Board Tax

• Margarita Tax

• Coffee Tax

• Used Car Tax

• All of the above

Those are ideas that came up in the Oregon Legislature, not necessarily ones that Brown advocated.

Richardson in Portland: Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and several state auditors met with the public on Wednesday evening at Creston Elementary School in Southeast Portland. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality leaders joined them to discuss the recent state audit of DEQ air quality permits. (The state Audits Division is part of the Secretary of State's Office.)

Afterward, Richardson wrote about the event in his newsletter: "It was impressive to hear the DEQ's praise of the audit team's professionalism and that the DEQ agreed with all of the recommendations set forth in the audit report."

A sense of place: In today's world, some executives commute hundreds or thousands of miles to their office. So am I old-fashioned for thinking an executive should be part of the community where she or he works?

I ask this because OBI's headquarters are in Salem, it has an office in Portland, yet CEO Johnson lived in Hood River, where he has served on the school board since 2005. His OBI web page says, "Mark and his wife Melodi continue to call Hood River home but use an apartment in Portland as a convenient base to access the Portland and Salem offices of OBI."

At the Governor's Marketplace Conference last month, Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett unabashedly urged attendees to move to Salem instead of commuting to the capital. At the same luncheon, Gov. Brown praised Salem and said she was a "part-time" resident of the city. She and first gentleman Dan Little live in Mahonia Hall, the governor's official residence in South Salem, but also have a home in Portland.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.