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Citizen panel reviewing proposed GMO crop ban

A citizen panel's analysis and resulting public findings on banning or allowing genetically modified crops in Jackson County will not be the only point of study during the panel's information-gathering process over the next three days.

Professors from Colorado State University and Penn State University will also be hard at work, compiling their own data on how well citizens' initiative-review panels work in elections.

"Our purpose is to evaluate the quality of the processes. We're also interested in how panelists grapple with the scientific information," said Dr. Katie Knobloch, assistant professor of communication studies at CSU.

Overseen by nonprofit group Healthy Democracy Oregon, the state-sanctioned CIR panel will examine and discuss information pertaining to ballot measure 15-119 — which would ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County if passed — today and Tuesday.

The panel will release its findings at 5 p.m. Wednesday on the HDO website, www.healthydemocracyoregon.org. Those findings will contain a list of key facts, along with the strongest arguments for and against a GMO ban. There will be no ultimate, broad opinion from panel members, said Tyrone Reitman, HDO executive director.

"The CIR doesn't require consensus," Reitman said. "People obviously come with their perspectives and values, and that's good. We want that stuff. This isn't a totally neutral, values-free sort of thing. This is an opportunity to have a real and in-depth conversation."

While the panel examines public information and interviews experts, Knobloch said her research will document the process and its effectiveness.

"We're looking at how well does this setup function. Are they given enough information? Are the advocates providing credible information? How do the panelists interact with one another? How do they interact with the advocates?" Knobloch said.

Additionally, Jackson County voters will be surveyed on how and if they utilized CIR findings in their vote.

"Are they finding out new information or new arguments that they wouldn't have known if they hadn't read the statement?" Knobloch said.

Panelists won't meet with members of the media until the process is complete for fear of attempted sway from partisan groups. According to HDO data, the panel's demographic reflects Jackson County's. It is made up of nine men and 11 women. All but two are caucasian, and all but six voted in two or more of the last four elections. There are seven Democrats, seven Republicans and six unaffiliated voters. Five are between the ages of 18 and 34, nine are between the ages of 35 and 59, and six are 60 or older. A majority, 14, have a high school education or GED, with four that have attained either an associate's or bachelor's degree, and two with graduate degrees.

Panelists were chosen by responding to a CIR mailer, and were asked to disqualify themselves if they had volunteered or donated to a a pro- or anti-GMO group.

The research is funded with a $400,000 grant from National Science Foundation, split between CSU and Penn State. Both Knobloch and Dr. John Gastil, of Penn State, studied Oregon's first statewide CIR in 2010 while working at the University of Washington. This is a continuation of their research, Knobloch said.

So far, the data gleaned has shown the CIR process does what it's supposed to: provide voters with quality information that doesn't attempt to sway them one way or the other.

"We find the process to be really high-quality, particularly when you compare it to the normal political discourse or the political discourse that you generally see during elections," Knobloch said. "(Panelists) just get to spend a lot of time thinking about the initiative. They question the advocates and they question neutral experts. So they can really drill down into the information."

The same is true of voter impact, she added.

"People really do find out new information and arguments as a result of reading these statements, and it's stuff that they wouldn't necessarily know just by reading the other information in the voters guide," Knobloch said.

Reitman said the research component of CIR effectiveness is important in making sure future panels happen.

"This research basically enables us to test our assumptions. We think this is a value added," he said. "We've subjected ourselves to more research and transparency than I can think of (in) any other government effort."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.