Our Opinion: Governments erring on side of secrecy
The early reports out of Oakland suggest that Danielle Outlaw is a solid choice to be Portland's next police chief. But what, exactly, were the attributes that pushed her ahead of the others being considered by Mayor Ted Wheeler?
No one knows, because when Wheeler announced he had four finalists for the job of police chief, he released the names of only two of them. Wheeler had intended to name the four chief finalists, but changed course when two of them (including, apparently, Outlaw) balked at going public without a job offer.
Wheeler was actually more transparent than the Portland Public Schools Board, which didn't disclose the names of any finalists for the district superintendent post. Instead, on March 3, it announced Donyall Dickey, a top school official from Atlanta, would get the job, only to have the deal fall apart two months later.
We understand it's inconvenient to let your current boss know you're angling for a new job, but that's the price you should expect to pay when the paycheck you're seeking comes from taxpayers. Plus there are other big cities and school districts that make public the names of at least the finalists for their top posts. So job applicants in Portland shouldn't expect privacy here, unless overly cautious hiring managers decide to volunteer it. In our view, both the mayor and the school board erred in offering that promise.
An even more troubling new chapter in "Portland Confidential" comes from the folks at Metro, the regional government that, among other things, deals with our trash.
As Portland Tribune News Editor Steve Law has reported, Metro recently accepted proposals from seven companies vying for a big contract to process the region's food waste and turn it into compost or renewable energy.
When Law asked for the companies' submissions, hoping to report at least the locations of the proposed waste treatment sites and the method of disposal the companies would use, he was told the information is a secret.
In each of these three cases, people were told they could apply for public work — in the form of a huge contract or a plum job — and keep either their names or the nature of the proposed work confidential.
Oregon's public records law is clear that all government documents are assumed to be public records unless there is a compelling reason to keep them secret. Metro is taking the opposite approach, arguing that everything but the name of the bidders is secret unless the public or the press can offer a compelling reason for disclosure.
It's very possible that a bidder has some details in its proposals it doesn't want to share with a competitor. There is, of course, a simple solution. Such bona-fide trade secrets are a legitimate exemption, and can be redacted from documents when they are released.
Common sense dictates that some information recorded by public agencies should be kept secret: Social Security numbers, health care records or third-grade report cards. And Oregon public records law rightly allows such exemptions.
But public officials in Oregon could back up their hollow words about transparency with a clear message to anyone who wants a top government job or contract. They can explain that we are a state that values transparency. Sure, we will protect the limited personal and business details that are exempt from disclosure, but otherwise, expect your names and your proposals to be made public to the people who are footing the bill.