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Ballot measure politics comes under scrutiny

The nonpartisan Healthy Democracy Oregon group will gather 20 randomly selected Jackson County voters to evaluate contentious claims and supposed facts for a measure on the May 20 primary ballot, with a goal of providing a realistic picture of what the proposal will and won't do.

The state-sanctioned panel, called a Citizens' Initiative Review, will evaluate either the library levy or the proposed ban on growing genetically modified organisms, but doesn't want to make that choice public — so as to avoid possible pressure on panelists before they begin their work Sunday afternoon in Medford.

The CIR was adopted into Oregon law by the Legislature in 2011 and is a non-profit, funded by foundations and donors. Its goal is to create the most "fair and balanced" analysis of ballot measures, says its website, http://healthydemocracyoregon.org/citizens-initiative-review.

The CIR so far has analyzed only statewide ballot measures; this is the first-ever report on a local measure, says Tyrone Reitman, executive director of Healthy Democracy Oregon.

Reitman and five HDO employees will oversee the panel, which will examine publicly available information on Sunday and Monday, then interview experts Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, it will compile its top 10 findings.

"These are the findings they have the most confidence in their validity and trustworthiness," says Reitman. "They will also point out the discrepancies they found. Five of the findings will be for and five against."

The findings will be released to media and published on HDO's website at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The group's analysis of state ballot measures in 2012 were used by 627,000 people and, he says, "It's information that all the public would know is truthful."

Healthy Democracy chose Jackson County in part, Reitman notes, because ballot measures here are controversial and are drawing record contributions for measures outside the Portland area. The GMO measure had attracted more than $900,000 in campaign spending at last reports.

"The panel's job is to identify the key points that are factually accurate and that all members agree to," he says. "Information that is not truthful is flagged in the CIR process and does not make it into the CIR final statement ... . It's information all the public should know and it's truthful."

Panelists were selected among voters who responded to a CIR mailer and were chosen to match the demographic profile of the county. They were asked to disqualify themselves if they had volunteered or donated much to the ballot measures. Elected officials are not allowed on panels. Panelists are paid $100 a day, plus expenses.

The process is open to the public. It will begin at noon Sunday at the Inn at the Commons, 200 N. Riverside Ave., Medford, with the topic announced at 1 p.m. The sessions will be moderated by local Mediation Works members Laurel Miller and Ken Crocker, who underwent a one-day training by CIR. The audience may observe but not participate in the process.

Sessions on Monday through Wednesday will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The local CIR is an experiment, testing a redesigned and more efficient process, says Reitman. It will be evaluated for a month by a team of researchers, who will announce what they found voters learned from it and how it might be further improved.

The process will cost $45,000, but could be reduced to as little as $25,000 in the future because design costs will be done, he says. Funding for the local sessions came mostly from the Carpenter Foundation, Ford Family Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust.

"This is a pretty major undertaking," Reitman says, "and we feel it's going to work really well."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.