It was with alarm that we learned that lawmakers in Salem are actively considering a proposal to make Oregon government actions less open.
And it was with extraordinary disappointment that we learned that the latest move in this direction is being spearheaded by the North Coast’s former Rep. Deborah Boone, and recommended by our state Sen. Betsy Johnson.
What on Earth are they thinking?
Public confidence in government is already at an all-time low. But here are two lawmakers who represent us in Salem, signaling to Clatsop County residents that they want to curtail public access to information about governmental decision-making.
Supporters say Senate Bill 609 is designed to prevent people making blanket requests for public records and expecting officials at public agencies to answer them fully and immediately — whatever the time and cost.
We have all heard of occasional examples where a community activist has demanded full reports on some issue and caused an agency considerable time and expense in trying to comply. Often it has been curmudgeonly characters with legal beefs against that agency trying to act as their own lawyers and create a paper trail to win their cases.
However, even those public records requests have been known to unearth government abuses.
Most public records requests are totally legitimate queries in good faith. They are not “fishing expeditions,” as Boone alleges. Instead, they come from members of the public or journalists seeking information about a specific issue.
Additionally, Boone’s suggestion that requestors must reveal how the information is going to be used is totally inappropriate. Public records are open to taxpayers. Period. Requesters can paper the wall with them if they want to —taxpayers shouldn’t have any such requirement.
Oregon quite rightly gained a reputation some years ago of being the nation’s paragon of openness. Other states have consulted our folks in Salem on best practices when considering modifications in their own openness policies.
It is a matter of pride to us that Oregon laws were originally written on the basis that everything should be public, with very few exceptions. However, this has been eroded away by more than 500 exemptions, instead of just allowing a few very carefully defined, narrow categories.
Thankfully, there are public officials who understand. The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, two groups we are closely affiliated with, have honored Northwest public officials who have promoted openness. Some county clerks set superb examples and provide expertise to neighboring agencies on how to interpret both the reality and the spirit of the law.
This ill-considered action is an appalling waste of everyone’s time on a non-issue. Any crisis, if there is one, is manufactured. Boone embarrasses herself by admitting that she cannot point to a single specific instance where a broad public records request has caused an agency difficulty or expense — she just says it is a problem.
We try to avoid clichés on both our news and opinion pages, but we can think of no better description than “using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.”
Even if the occasional records request proves costly, it isn’t a big enough problem to require legislation to tighten access to information from legitimate questioners.
The public in Oregon, whose taxes pay for our government, quite rightly expect to be able to scrutinize decision-making. In making public records requests, citizens are simply asking how their money is being spent. Sometimes — often, in fact — we in the press ask the questions on behalf of the public. That’s our function as a watchdog in a democracy, a duty we have taken seriously since the nation was founded.
When Boone announced her retirement from the House, we were complimentary about her lengthy service to the state, first as an employee and later as a legislator representing fishers and other interests on the North Coast. But, over the years, we have been critical that the Democrat has not demonstrated memorable leadership in any one specific bill or law.
If this latest is to be her last act — and her legacy — it will indeed be a sad one.
This is an idea that needs to die. It benefits no one and it hurts everyone. Any representative even considering going down this path needs to stop. Right now.