COLUMN: New arena opens to protect your access to government information

The phrase “public records” isn’t exactly a great conversation starter at the coffee shop.

People don’t grab chairs or scoot up closer to hear more. They suddenly get real busy – with anything else.

But behind that phrase is something that should be dear to everyone at a coffee shop or anyplace else: Good, honest government.

That’s why I have agreed to serve on a new government board – the state Public Records Advisory Council. Gov. Kate Brown appointed me last week. I face a confirmation hearing later this month before a state Senate committee that includes our own state senator, Ted Ferrioli of John Day. Assuming I pass muster, I’ll be put to work pretty quickly.

The job of this new council is to help reduce fights between the public and government executives over access to government documents. Most of those fights are between journalists and government executives. I know. I’ve been a fighter brawling for accessible government for decades in Oregon.

The council and the new public records advocate – to be selected soon by the council – will sort out the competing interests in those government records. Journalists, of course, want everything. Government officials are sometimes too eager to slap a padlock on a file cabinet and say, “Nothing doing.” Both can be right in the right circumstances.

This is not an academic exercise. This matters hugely for you to know about the people spending your money, regulating your life, business and job, and deciding what public service you get.

Examples abound.

One you may be most acquainted with the Malheur Enterprise’s work earlier this year to get state records concerning Tony Montwheeler, the former state hospital patient now accused of murder. Two state agencies insisted those records should remain secret. We insisted otherwise. In the end, it took the governor stepping in to ensure the public got to see documents explaining how the state had handled Montwheeler’s case.

You may have heard the director of the Oregon Health Authority resigned recently under pressure from the governor. That’s after reporter Nick Budnick of the Portland Tribune used the state’s public records law to unearth plans for that state agency to secretly smear a health provider challenging the state’s conduct. Without access to government records, that plot would still be a government secret.

And last year, Rob Davis of The Oregonian/OregonLive turned to public records to show Oregon’s National Guard mishandled lead contamination in its armories. That included a former armory in Ontario. The National Guard fought disclosure, then admitted there was trouble, and then asked for $21 million to clean up its mess. That mess, by the way, exposed children and adults to potentially toxic lead poisoning.

Journalists don’t use the state law to just go rummaging through government files. In nearly every instance, the hunt for documents is part of the hunt for truth about government conduct. It is key to the watchdog function, one we take seriously here at the Enterprise.

But I also know there are times when secrecy should prevail. There often is no reason for the public to know when a front-line public employee is disciplined for misconduct. A mistake is different than a crime, and ought to be treated as such. The privacy of individuals is important, especially for children. And, with rare exeptions, such as Montwheeler, medical records held by the government ought to be as sacrosanct as if they were in a doctor’s files.

My hope is to bring to bear my years of dealing with governments and of investigating governments. I’m a believer that most government officials are honest and want to do a good job. And the best among them welcome public scrutiny. They don’t feel aggrieved by someone looking over their shoulder. Sometimes, journalists can get a bit rabid about their pursuit of information and records, misunderstanding what the public records law allows and doesn’t allow.

In my new state capacity, I hope to make public access to records a reasonable, smooth process with fewer fights. I’ll act always in the interest of transparent government. And I will always, at every turn, remember this is about what’s best for citizens, not journalists or government officials.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise.