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MONMOUTH — In a thankfully air-conditioned conference room at Western Oregon University, roughly two dozen Oregonians, a randomly selected group of men and women from throughout the state, have gathered around a U-shaped collection of tables.

It is Friday, the second day of the Citizens' Initiative Review into Measure 97, the corporate gross-receipts measure on the November ballot. The citizens who have gathered around the table, guided by a team of professional mediators, are about to break into small groups to craft the questions they think are most important about the measure. The panelists later will ask the questions to Measure 97 proponents and opponents.

Behind the panel of citizens, kept safely behind a yellow line taped onto the floor, are observers — those proponents and opponents, not to mention researchers and folks who are curious about the review process, which was pioneered in Oregon and now is showing promising signs of spreading throughout the country.

First, though, there is a minor crisis among the citizen panelists: A typo in some of the background material the panelists received Thursday has been fixed, and now a corrected page is being distributed. But the holes have been punched in the wrong side of the page. A hole puncher is rapidly called into action, and the jurors break into four small groups to begin crafting their questions.

Robin Teater, the executive director of Healthy Democracy, the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization contracted by the state to run the Citizens' Initiative Review process, leans over to me.

"Democracy," she says, half-jokingly, "is slow and tedious."

That's true enough; there's nothing like watching small groups at work to make you wish that you were out reporting a story about whether hot weather makes paint dry faster.

But then you stop and look at the dynamics of each of these small groups. Only snippets of the conversations can be heard, but it's clear that the panelists are not only engaged in their conversations, they're actually listening to each other. In a political culture that doesn't put much premium any more on listening, this borders on the magical.

The panelists will wrap up their four days of work on Sunday by crafting a statement highlighting their most important findings about the measure. The statement will be published in the statewide Voters' Pamphlet. It will be a place for voters just like the ones gathered in Monmouth to find nonpartisan and unbiased information about this complex measure.

Because of funding issues, Measure 97 will be the only initiative this election year to receive a citizens' review. It's a shame, especially considering that each review only costs about $100,000. (Panelists are paid, and their room and board is covered.) Oregon's process is privately funded, and the reasons for that are sound. But as the state's ballot measures become increasingly complex, and the kind of information these reviews generate becomes more important, the state's leaders should consider adding at least some public money into the mix.

John Gastil, a Penn State University professor who has been studying the Citizens' Initiative Review process, is among the observers in Monmouth. Gastil says evidence is mounting that voters find the information created in the citizens' reviews useful: "It's absolutely making people more knowledgeable," he says. Evidence also is clear that the panelists take their duties seriously, and that they do deliberate over these matters.

In fact, the questions generated by the small groups underline Gastil's point: Many of them get right to the heart of Measure 97. They are the work of people who are paying attention.

And so it comes as somewhat of a disappointment to witness the proponents and opponents often answering these thoughtful questions in what are essentially slogans and sound bites (although, to be fair, each side only has 90 seconds to respond to each question, and the time limit is rigorously enforced).

After all, the entire idea of the review process is to give voters information that transcends slogans. Voters will get plenty of those this fall as the Measure 97 fight heats up. But if voters want to see what their peers thought about the measure after studying it in depth, the Citizens' Initiative Review is the only source. (mm)

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