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Guest Commentary: If you want the real story, keep public records public

If our state and nation needed a reminder of the importance of accurate information, the outbreak of COVID-19 supplied it. The spread of the novel coronavirus spawned a parallel, equally contagious flare-up of false facts, opportunistic scams and well-intentioned but woefully misguided advice on social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and, in particular, the messaging system WhatsApp.

Fortunately, with the help of the media, timely information did get disseminated in Oregon, even before coronavirus cases were reported. Since then, journalists, health care activists and others have been requesting additional data and documents from public agencies, with varying degrees of success, 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 enjoy access to accurate information about units of their government, from city hall to Mahonia Hall.

In return for our money and trust, government needs to make public announcements, conduct public meetings and provide public records in the interest of transparency.

Most of the time, public officials do that so well it can become boring. When they don’t, Oregonians take notice, and they don’t like it. 

In 2015, Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned after First Lady Cylvia Hayes was accused of influence-peddling. When journalists asked for records to check her use of public time, money and resources, the governor tried to block their release. 

When Gov. Kate Brown was sworn in, she vowed to make transparency a top priority. In 2017, the first legislative session after the scandal, the Legislature followed up by passing the state’s most comprehensive public records law reform since the Nixon era. A key component was 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 ran high, but proved short-lived. In September of last year, the advocate announced she was resigning over pressure  to put Gov. Brown’s interests above the public’s interest. 

A bill to make sure that doesn’t happen again is awaiting an opportunity for legislative action.

In the meantime, Sunshine Week, organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for the week of March 15-21, gives us a chance to remind Oregonians about their stake in government transparency.

Oregonians care about their children. So they cared when unsafe day care facilities operated with impunity — until those records were made public.

Oregonians care about their schools. So they cared when school plumbing risked making kids sick and teachers identified as abusive by co-workers were allowed to continue on the job — until those records were made public.

Oregonians care about their food. So they cared when grocery stores or restaurants continued quietly violating public safety standards — until those records were made public.

Oregonians care about the thousands of dollars in tax money they send to Salem every year. They care when certain agencies and programs continued wasting it — until those records were made public.

During this election year’s Sunshine Week, it’s more important than ever to demand anyone asking for your vote to commit to transparency.

This editorial was adapted from a commentary provided by Open Oregon, a non-profit freedom of information coalition. Learn more at www.open-oregon.com. 

Comments

Don Dix

From the article -- During this election year’s Sunshine Week, it’s more important than ever to demand anyone asking for your vote to commit to transparency.

Of course, 'promising transparency' to get elected is one thing, while actually 'providing transparency' after being elected is quite another. Gov. Brown is not Oregon's first elected official to go sideways from campaign promises, just one of the most recent.

Oregon is a prime example why voting party lines instead of individual candidates will always create more problems than it solves.