Grading the government
Earlier this year, the Spotlight examined public agencies in Columbia County to gauge how committed each was to maintaining transparency and public involvement.
As the year comes to a close, we revisited each agency to see whether any changes have been made. Last week, we published updated reports on south Columbia County cities, school districts and special districts. This week, we take another look at transparency in local law enforcement and the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. While some seem to be making small, but meaningful strides toward better serving the public, others haven't implemented any new efforts, and a few agencies have fallen further from the spirit of Oregon's public records and meetings laws.
Law enforcement agencies
Scappoose Police Department
New grade: B+
Last grade : B+
As an agency overall, officers and the chief work hard to ensure public outreach and maintain close relationships with media. They fulfill records requests without hesitation, hold public outreach events, maintain a social media presence for the public, and distribute press releases for most incidents that warrant a larger police response, or have a public impact.
Room for improvement: We're giving the department the same grade as last time, because we still believe there's room for improvement with issuing more timely press releases. Media agencies often aren't notified of the department's larger arrests until a week after the incidents happen. More importantly, we hope the agency is able to take cues from St. Helens Police Department, and find a way to include body cameras in its agency budget, for full transparency of police interactions with the public.
St. Helens Police Department
New grade: A
Last grade: A
The St. Helens Police Department continues to be actively engaged with reaching residents and maintaining transparency. In addition to its social media outlets and regular press releases, the department launched a mobile application this summer that allows residents to report anonymous tips directly to police with a few clicks on a smart phone. The application also sends press releases and communications directly to the users phone, alerting them to breaking news and community events. The police department also rolled out a body camera program in August for all officers on duty. Operating policies determine when officers should record their interactions with the public, most most instances include use of force and traffic stops. In the months since the cameras have been in use, Police Chief Terry Moss said he has not had to review any body cam footage in relation to complaints against officers, and said he and his staff see the cameras as useful and part of their daily routine now.
Room for improvement: The St. Helens Police Department operates a multitude of robust lines of communication lines to the community, making it one of the more transparent agencies. Some media releases, like weekly police logs, are delivered somewhat inconsistently, but information is always available on request. The department's body cam program could be the biggest area of growth for the department as the program continues.
Columbia County Sheriff's Office
New grade: B
Last grade: A
The Sheriff's Office has had a somewhat bumpy year since we last evaluated its practices. In March, former undersheriff Andy Moyer was taken down in rank and instead made a sergeant in the jail. What exactly led to Moyer's disciplinary demotion was never revealed. A few months later, the Spotlight learned of an odd practice involving sheriff's deputies selling concealed carry permits to out-of-state residents, and even previously traveling to Washington gun shows to do so.
Most recently, a video showing a K9 deputy attacking an inmate at the jail has yielded mixed feedback from the public about the use of police dogs. Despite the sometimes uncomfortable reality of law enforcement work and activities, the Sheriff's Office hasn't wavered in its duty to answer tough media questions, or release public records when asked. The office maintains a social media page and issues timely press releases. Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, an elected official, is typically highly responsive to inquiries and candid, no matter the conversation. That can sometimes be a rare commodity in law enforcement agencies.
Room for improvement: We applaud the implementation of body cameras at the Sheriff's Office — the first law enforcement agency in the county to adopt the use of body cams. Strictly looking at grading criteria, the Sheriff's Office does well, but in light of recent events and practices that were only discovered through investigative news reporting, the office seems to be operating in-part under the public radar.
Columbia County Board of Commissioners
New grade: C-
Last grade: C+
As mentioned earlier this year, the county has made strides toward improving its public outreach and information, with the addition of a public relations coordinator. Access to information upon media request has improved, thanks to the position, but other areas are still lacking, despite a beefed up administrative staff at the commissioners office. The county commissioners meet twice each Wednesday.
Morning meetings happen at 10 a.m., so working residents are rarely able to attend and the meetings typically consist of swift approval of several items at once via what's known as a "consent agenda" vote. The real barriers to public information come when commissioners reconvene in the afternoon in a small conference room. Agendas for these meetings are loose and rarely provide the meaningful descriptors necessary to meet public meetings laws.
Recently, a meeting was held without any notice to the public when commissioners, acting as the Columbia County Development Agency, met with Port of St. Helens commissioners and staff to discuss a water system issue at Port Westward. The public was never notified of the meeting and there is no record of the meeting on the county's website.
Furthermore, meeting minutes are backlogged by months, and agendas often lack information about public hearings or important matters beyond what's on the weekly consent agenda. Karen Kane, the county's public information coordinator, says the county is working on a communications plan to bolster public access to county events and information.
"We are working on an initiative to increase transparency in county governance," Kane stated when asked about the plan back in September. "One of the areas I've noted that will help is our county website. We know the current site does not give us the capabilities we need, and a vastly improved site will make it possible for us to upload documents and information in a variety of areas, which will greatly improve our communications and outreach."
Room for improvement: County government leaders have a wide range of responsibilities and a wide territory to represent. No doubt, they've got their work cut out for them, but the range of territory and duties makes transparency that much more tantamount. We think simple improvements could be made in terms of access to meeting minutes, more descriptive staff meeting agendas, properly advertised meetings, and a mode of operation that prioritizes public involvement.