Keep light on public's business
No one appreciates the gift of sunlight more than the rain-drenched denizens of western Oregon. Yet, when it comes to sunshine of a different kind the type that illuminates the dark corners of government Oregonians too often have been willing to surrender the tools that make close inspection possible.
You wont necessarily be able to confirm this with a glance out the window, but its Sunshine Week in Oregon. This is a time to celebrate the laws that empower not just journalists, but everyone who wants to attend public meetings, review government records and generally know how their tax dollars are used.
Oregon once was a leader in government openness, having adopted a strong transparency law in 1973. In the past four decades, however, special interests have chipped away at the law in an attempt to protect their particular agency, industry or constituency from having to reveal information to the public.
To date, the Legislature has created more than 400 exemptions to the law exceptions that give government officials more than 400 reasons to withhold records that otherwise would be available for inspection.
Public losing its rights
The assault on the publics right to know continues this legislative session. Lawmakers are considering bills that would make private the names of people receiving benefits from the Public Employees Retirement System and that would limit the information released from Oregon Health Licensing Agency investigations. Other bills would keep information about bedbug infestations secret and would block release of transcripts from juvenile court hearings.
These arent just issues of significance to nosy journalists. Rather, they are matters of broad public concern. Wouldnt you want to know the details of a state investigation into your health care provider? Or whether the hotel you recommend to visiting relatives has bedbugs? And do the people retiring from state and local government jobs not realize that the P in PERS stands for public, and that those retirement benefits come from tax dollars?
Pamplin Media Group journalists use public records every day to report important stories to our readers:
n Here in Hillsboro, city personnel records provided to Hillsboro Tribune Managing Editor Nancy Townsley gave readers insights into a police officer who opened fire on colleagues responding to a domestic-disturbance call at his home in January.
n In Cornelius, a complaint filed with the city and obtained by the News-Times revealed deep divisions within the police department, a rift that resulted in the early retirement of former Police Chief Paul Rubenstein.
n Portland Tribune reporter Peter Korn used TriMet disciplinary records two years ago to find out how a bus driver with repeated customer service problems and complaints continued to work for the regional transit agency. Last summer Laura Frazier, a News-Times intern, used a police incident report and a TriMet bus video tape (both obtained through public records requests) to confirm that the driver had been involved in a dust-up with another family in Washington County. The driver abruptly retired.
n In Portland, Tribune reporter Steve Law used public records from the Oregon Lottery and the Portland Police Bureau for a series of news stories on continued problems at Jantzen Beachs Lottery Row. Laws reporting spurred both state lottery officials and local lawmakers to demand changes in the way lottery restaurants operate.
n In Troutdale, Mayor Jim Kight was voted out of office in November after the Gresham Outlook and other news organizations pressured the City Council into releasing an investigation it had commissioned to examine the mayors conduct.
Public losing its rights
While public records are the raw material for volumes of good reporting, public officials too often are able to use exemptions to stall or even prevent information from becoming public. In the case of the Cornelius police chief who was given a $10,000 severance check on his way out the door, amid charges of corruption city officials now are trying to keep the results of an internal investigation secret.
In their attempt to do so, the citys lawyer cites a litany of loopholes in the states public records law, including the catch-all attorney-client privilege.
Because the once-expansive ability to access government records has been shrinking by the year, newspaper editors across the nation started Sunshine Week about a decade ago. Our goal is to bring greater attention to the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
Residents of local communities can help in this effort by consistently reminding their city, county, state and federal officials of a very simple concept: The publics business must be done in public and any erosion in access to government records is destructive to a democratic society.
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