Getting the truth out of government can sometimes be a challenge. Those in charge sometimes forget their duty is to protect the public, not their ambitions and reputations. Each of you can remind them of that next week during national Sunshine Week. As the campaign’s theme says, “It’s Your Right to Know.”
The basic premise in Oregon is that when a public agency holds a document, any citizen has a right to see it. There are exceptions, of course, and with good reason. Some government information should be kept secret. Government holds private information about individuals and businesses that has to be safeguarded.
Too often, though, those in charge of public agencies don’t like people rummaging around in their files. To some government bureaucrats, it’s an annoyance. To others, it’s a threat.
A citizen’s right to government information is fundamental to democracy. People have to be unlimited in their ability to look for themselves at, for example, a city’s spending records. They have to know what decisions are being made about a new middle school or about a new tax proposal. This is an essential tool to keeping an eye on those with the power to govern us.
Just recently, though, we’ve seen examples of government trying to stiff arm that citizen inquiry.
The most notable instance occurred in Washington state. There, state legislators rushed through a law change that would exempt them from that state’s public records law.
“The entire process took about 48 hours — alarmingly fast for Washington’s frequently plodding Legislature — and came one month after Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled legislators broke the law by not releasing public documents associated with their work,” the Seattle Times wrote in an editorial about that legislation.
The people in Washington state would have none of that secrecy. In a matter of days, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office logged 19,000 calls and emails. He subsequently vetoed the bill, and red-faced legislators swore they would do better.
Across the country, the New York Times and a law clinic at Yale University had to go to federal court to pry loose public government records. Finally, the U.S. Department of Interior turned over thousands of pages of records about a federal monument designation in Utah. The records showed government officials hadn’t been telling the full truth about why that monument had to be cut down in size.
Here in Malheur County, we’ve battled on behalf of citizens to get at public information. We fought to get records regarding Anthony Montwheeler, the accused murderer who claimed to fake mental illness. We’re still at it, trying to find out why the state court system decided a recent report should be off limits to the public.
Generally, we find that local governments in Malheur County haven’t been accustomed to anyone asking for their records. As they have come to understand their duty, though, they have readily complied with the state public records, including such public bodies as the Vale School District and the city of Ontario. Some still are finding their way through the law. Four Rivers Charter School, for instance, demanded a form be filled out before it would turn loose the most basic of government records – meeting minutes.
The special week is called “Sunshine Week” because the premise is that government functions best when operating in the open. This is not about serving the needs of the press. Rather, this is about serving the needs of citizens,to hold those in power accountable. If you agree, then remind any public official next week that public information belongs to you, not to them. — LZ
SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR: [email protected] or by mail to: Malheur Enterprise, PO Box 310, Vale OR 97918