Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Citizen's View: Voters of all stripes seek transparency from public officials

A recent poll of Independent Party of Oregon members has confirmed my suspicions that we are not as politically divided as we think — at least on one key issue.

The IPO is a new third party in Oregon, attracting supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The IPO poll showed there was one thing the two camps could agree on with overwhelming support: government transparency.

In fact, there was more agreement there than on any other category in the poll.

Eighty percent of Independent Party voters want Oregon to establish reasonable deadlines for government to respond to public records requests.

Seventy-eight percent want the government to provide public records at no cost or actual cost of production — to consider it part of their job, mission and budget to provide that information.

Voters may be divided on where to draw school boundaries, how to house the homeless or who should be president. But there is a common cry and it’s this: We want to be owners of our government again.

If we are the owners of our government, we should have the right to look around. We should be welcomed into the back rooms, invited to check the books, encouraged to question the decisions.

As radical as it seems, we should know what our government is doing, and we shouldn’t have to wait or pay for it.

That is not the case in Oregon today.

Most agencies do try to provide records as quickly and cheaply as possible. But in our law, there are no deadlines to reply to public records requests and no restrictions on fees. Public agencies in Oregon can (and do) wait as long as they want and charge whatever they want for a single email, and there’s little recourse.

Unfortunately, attempts to fix this system have repeatedly gotten bogged down in the quagmire of special interests.

In the third attempt in 40 years since Oregon’s original public records law passed, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is trying to course-correct. The two previous attempts at public records reform failed for lack of support among legislators and government agencies.

Instead, more than 500 public records exemptions have been added to the law, scattered throughout the statutes like the blackberry brambles in Oregon’s landscape.

Rosenblum, through a task force, is trying to come up with politically palatable reforms. But the proposed language, released earlier this month, is not the kind of reform that Oregon deserves.

Yes, there would finally be a deadline for responses to requests. But numerous loopholes in the current draft would allow unscrupulous agencies to wiggle out of them. Schools, including public universities and other large institutions, would — unlike now — be able to delay responses practically any time students are on vacation — a huge chunk of the calendar. If this were the case now, we still wouldn’t know much about the lead crisis in schools and other public gathering places.

And remember those 500 exemptions? The attorney general’s proposed reforms would shed light on them by requiring a catalog, but they stop short of doing something about them.

David Cuillier, a leading national researcher on public records laws, says a true step forward would be to not charge fees at all for collection and redaction of noncommercial records requests, as it prices low-income people, especially, out of governmental participation.

“This isn’t a park,” says Cuillier, a University of Arizona associate professor. “This is democracy we’re talking about. And we should not charge fees.”

On a macro level, government transparency is in everyone’s best interests. It’s better for government employees, it’s better for taxpayers, and it’s better for democracy.

It shouldn’t be surprising or upsetting that we want to see what’s going on between our employees inside all those buildings we’ve all spent so much of our tax money on.

There are certainly issues that we as Oregonians and Americans are divided on. But if there is common ground to be found, it’s that we want to know more.

Shasta Kearns Moore covers education and health care for the Portland Tribune and is Sunshine Chair of the Oregon Territory Society of Professional Journalists.