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My View: Reform must restore public's trust


Many of us have a memory of a special teacher who inspired and mentored us with lessons we carry forward in life.

My favorite teacher, a journalist who advised our newspaper class, instilled in us the importance of a free press serving as the “eyes and ears” for our citizens. She believed a free press had the responsibility to not just inform, but to hold government accountable for its actions. To have a truly free press, government must be open and accessible; when it’s not, the roots of corruption can grow.

I didn’t become a journalist, but I never forgot that lesson. As a legislator, her words ring in my ears with every headline about government scandals or the stonewalling of citizens trying to access the public’s own records.

Next month marks the one-year anniversary of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s scandalous exit from public office. During that time, elected leaders cried for more transparency and ethics reforms, stating government would be more open with public records. Gov. Kate Brown, in her inaugural address, promised Oregonians she’d work to restore our trust and called upon the Legislature to pass meaningful reforms. Her proposals moved around a few deck chairs and lawmakers touted success, but here we are a year later and nothing’s really changed.

During the 2015 legislative session, I proposed a wide-sweeping package to address campaign finance, ethics and public records reform. A few of the bills, like one to end the practice of stonewalling public records requests with time delays and fees, were given a brief hearing, but quickly shelved.

The sad conclusion I’ve come to is many elected officials don’t mind keeping citizens in the dark. If a light was shined on the process, Oregonians would quickly learn legislation is negotiated behind closed doors and special-interest sweetheart deals are made a priority.

One of Brown’s bills called for an audit of how public records requests are handled by state agencies. The audit not only ignored the pervasive use of exorbitant fees and legal actions by local governments to keep records private, but it’s questionable that the audit generates meaningful reforms for the 2016 session.

To demonstrate what I consider to be abuse of our public records laws, I offer two recent examples of stonewalling by local governments. The first was an incredible $5,000 fee in response to a citizen’s public records request to the city of Wilsonville. The second was a recent vote by the Portland City Council in an attempt to overturn a decision by District Attorney Rod Underhill to produce a records request of 25-year-old documents, which state statutes require be made available.

Even in the face of such bold attempts to subvert public information, the Legislature refuses to address the issue of public records. Instead, they added even more entities to the list of those exempt from public scrutiny. The best commentary about the sheer insanity of this policy came from Rep. David Gomberg (D-Lincoln City), who expressed on the House floor his bewilderment over giving a public records exemption to the “folks who sell monkey chow to OHSU.”

More importantly, with every legislated exemption, we create a culture of secrecy that allows corruption, backroom deals, and an environment where special interests flourish. Failure to enact reforms has created an environment where public employees who see wrongdoing are afraid to come forward. In 2015, more than $1 million was paid out to public employee whistleblowers to keep them quiet. Common-sense legislation that would have protected employees and given them a safe harbor to come forward when they witness waste, fraud or abuse never got a hearing.

As you read headlines about the horrific failure of the Department of Human Services to protect children in foster care from substantiated claims of sexual and physical abuse, ask yourself how quickly that failure might have been uncovered if employees felt they could come forward or the media had better access to government records.

When the decision to report what’s newsworthy becomes the monetary burden of our free press or average citizens due to exorbitant costs to acquire public records, versus a decision about what the public should know, we have a problem. When people fear they’ll be fired for coming forward to reveal system failures that waste tax dollars or put our most vulnerable citizens in harm’s way, we have an even bigger problem.

It’s no wonder Oregon recently received an “F” grade from the Center for Public Integrity for our lack of accountability, transparency and campaign finance reform.

This November, I hope you’ll prioritize candidates who will push for bold reforms that restore the public’s trust. Oregon’s Legislature needs to pass an ethics, campaign finance, and public records reform package in 2017. It will take people working across the aisle who’ll prioritize transparency to get it done.

Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, represents District 37 in the Oregon Legislature, which serves West Linn, Tualatin, Stafford, River Grove, Durham and Marylhurst. She was elected to the Legislature in 2010 and is running for a fourth term. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.