By editorial board • 

Secrecy seldom warranted in the workings of government

The free flow of public information is a cornerstone of our nation’s two-century experiment with democratic governance. It is the only way to ensure an informed society and electorate, and to hold government agencies and officials accountable to the citizens they serve.

Secrecy concentrates in the hands of the few powers that rightly belong in the hands of the many. In so doing, it serves to corrode and corrupt public processes at every level.

But for those entrusted with power positions in our society, it’s easy to view opening official actions and interchanges to the scrutiny of outsiders as a nuisance bordering on a menace. So it’s tempting to oversell sometimes legitimate counters to the public interest test enshrined in state and federal public information statutes — counters like fair trial, trade secrets, preliminary draft, ongoing investigation and personal privacy.

Late last month, Yamhill County Circuit Judge Cynthia Easterday struck an important blow for greater openness in the conduct of local governance. It came in an arena she knows well as a former prosecutor — the criminal justice system.

The case was brought by the News-Register. At issue were the original incident report and a pair of more extensive followups supporting sexual harassment and abuse action against former Linfield University trustee David Jubb.

Easterday rejected the city’s contention that release of the information would, as she summarized its argument, “impede government functions and the criminal investigation.”

A final judgment has yet to be issued, and Easterday’s finding remains subject to appeal. But it was heartening to see the veteran judge come down squarely on the side of transparency and accountability — something the newspaper sought not for its own ends, rather those of the public it serves in its watchdog role.

The city’s position was that police investigatory findings should remain closeted from the public until the case had been fully adjudicated.

However, only a tiny fraction of criminal cases ever go to trial. In those that do, the wait for an initial verdict could easily run two or even three years, and appeals could stretch that out for many more years, particularly in capital cases. How is the public to assess the conduct of local officials — in this case, city police and county prosecutors — if the basic foundations are arbitrarily and indefinitely withheld?

There are other important issues to consider as well.

In cases like Jubb’s, which alleged sexual advances toward students, a single student going public often rings bells encouraging others to come forward. In such cases, justice is clearly best served — and in fact, often only served — through full and timely disclosure.

What’s more, sometimes evidence dismissed by officials during internal reviews later serves to break a case wide open when it reaches the public eye. So it was with the Atlanta slaying of innocent Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery by three white vigilantes, one of whom had an extensive law enforcement background.

The three were recently convicted of murder by a mostly white jury. But they would not have even been charged in the case were it not for leaking to the media of video of their own making — video that shocked the public conscience everywhere.

Public interest is high in such cases because the stakes are so high. They can shape public perception for decades to come.

It’s imperative the public be dealt in honestly and forthrightly from the outset. That doesn’t happen in China or Russia, but our way of life depends on it continuing to happen here.

Comments

Don Dix

Secrecy in government? Would that include the infamous words when the House of Reps wanted to pass the the Affordable Care Act? -- '"We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." (Nancy Pelosi - March 2010(