Government accountability requires access to public records
If Oregon and the nation needed a reminder of the importance of accurate information, the outbreak of COVID-19 provided it. The spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus spawned a parallel, equally contagious flare-up of false facts, opportunistic scams, rampant rumors and well-intentioned but woefully misguided advice on social media platforms.
Fortunately, public officials in Oregon, with the help of the media, were able to disseminate timely information, even before the first U.S. coronavirus cases were reported. Since then, journalists, health care activists and others have been requesting additional data and documents from public agencies in an effort to inform, rather than panic, the public.
The health scare is an example of why in this era of disinformation and divisiveness, Oregonians are nearly unanimous in their desire to have accurate information from and about our government, from city hall to Mahonia Hall.
In return for our money and trust, we expect government to make thorough and accurate public announcements, conduct meetings in public, and provide timely public records.
Typically, public officials do that so well that it's boring.
But when they don't, we Oregonians notice. And we don't like it.
In 2015, first lady Cylvia Hayes was accused of influence-peddling. When journalists asked for records to check her use of public time, money and resources, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber tried to stop their release. It cost him his job.
Following his resignation, Kate Brown vowed to make transparency a top priority as she was sworn in as his replacement.
In 2017, the first legislative session after the scandal, the Legislature passed the state's most comprehensive public records law reform since the Nixon era. A key component was the creation of the Office of the Oregon Public Records Advocate — a professional who would offer open government training, guidance and mediation across the state.
Optimism was high. But it was short-lived. In September of last year, the advocate announced she was resigning over the pressure she felt to put Gov. Brown's interests above the public interest.
A bill to make sure that doesn't happen again was pending in the 2020 Legislature, but it died without a vote on Sunday, March 8, when the session came to an end.
This kind of bill isn't exciting to most people. Oregonians may not care about public records law — but they care about the results of it. As we head into Sunshine Week, organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, it is a good opportunity for a reminder about why everyone has a stake in government transparency.
— Oregonians care about schoolchildren. They cared that their school plumbing could have been making kids sick, and that teachers identified by their co-workers as abusive were still allowed to work — because the Portland Tribune made those records public.
— Oregonians care about the health of student athletes. They cared that, despite a law requiring high schools to document every sports-related concussion in Oregon, no one had bothered to see how common these brain injuries are — until the Pamplin Media Group and InvestigateWest made those records public.
— Oregonians care about their food. They cared that grocery stores or restaurants had been violating public safety standards — when The Oregonian/Oregonlive made those records public.
— Oregonians care about the mental health of others, including those awaiting trial. They care that, for years, there was an unreported epidemic of suicides in local jails — because Oregon Public Broadcasting made those records public.
— Oregonians care about the thousands of dollars in tax money they send to Salem every year. They care that money intended for our most-vulnerable residents had been quietly wasted — because the Lund Report made those records public.
— Oregonians care about public safety in regard to energy infrastructure in our communities. They care that Wilsonville and numerous other cities in northwest Oregon have a high-pressure gasoline pipeline running through neighborhoods, and they care how their local public safety agencies are equipped to deal with a malfunction with the pipe — because the Wilsonville Spokesman made those records public.
Oregonians care about accurate information about their government. During this election year's Sunshine Week, it's more important than ever to demand anyone asking for your vote to commit to transparency.
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