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Keeping light on public's business important

No one appreciates the gift of sunlight more than a rain-saturated resident 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.

Sunshine Week in Oregon was March 16 to 22 and a time to celebrate not just the First Amendment but also the laws that empower journalists and citizens to attend public meetings, review public 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 — giving government officials more than 400 reasons to withhold records that otherwise would be available for inspection.

The assault on the public’s 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 aren’t just issues of significance to nosy journalists. Rather, they are matters of broad public concern. Wouldn’t 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?

Pamplin Media Group journalists use public records every day to report important stories to our readers:

-- Portland Tribune reporter Peter Korn used TriMet disciplinary records two years ago to find out how a Beaverton bus driver with repeated customer service problems and complaints continued to work for the regional transit agency. Months later, the same driver was fired after another serious issue involving a family in Washington County.

-- 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 Beach’s Lottery Row. Law’s reporting spurred both state lottery officials and local lawmakers to demand changes in the way lottery restaurants operate.

-- In Hillsboro, city personnel records gave readers insights into a police officer who opened fire on colleagues who responded to a domestic-disturbance call to his home in January.

-- In Cornelius, a complaint filed with the city revealed deep divisions within the police department, a rift that resulted in the police chief’s early retirement. 

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, they cite a litany of loopholes in the state’s public records law.

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 public’s business must be done in public — and any erosion in access to government records is destructive to a democratic society.