State workers union says state broke the law with public records release

Gov. Kate Brown last year arranged for the state Psychiatric Security Review Board to drop its lawsuit against the weekly Malheur Enterprise and turn over records to the newspaper. (Enterprise file photo)

Oregon’s largest state employee union says the state broke the law earlier this year when it released certain information about 50,000 public workers.

The union’s concerns triggered Gov. Kate Brown’s office to order a fresh review of Oregon’s public records law to determine whether tighter restrictions are needed for personal information held by government agencies.

Unions have been major political supporters of Brown, who is seeking re-election.

At issue is the state’s recent disclosure of detailed information about state employees.

The state Department of Administrative Services released information about employees to The Oregonian, which sought the data to analyze state pay patterns.

By law, state officials are required to tell public workers or their union when they receive a request for public documents that contain certain personal information. The Oregon Public Records Law restricts the disclosure of some data, such as home addresses and birth dates, unless government officials conclude the disclosure by “clear and convincing evidence” serves the public interest.

Melissa Unger, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Local 503 in Salem, said the state didn’t notify employees and did not adequately review the public interest in making the information public.

Unger said state workers found out weeks later that their name, agency, job, gender, ethnicity, salary, and the month and year of birth had been released.

Unger said the birth date details shouldn’t have been released at all.

“We believe this list release did not follow statute,” Unger said. “The law wasn’t implemented consistently…. This is a big privacy concern.”

Nik Blosser, chief of staff for Gov. Kate Brown, confirmed that no advance notification was provided to employees. He didn’t address whether restricted information had been improperly disclosed.

“I don’t have a simple yes-or-no answer to that. That’s up to the court to decide,” he said. “A big part of it is a little bit of conflict between two different decisions by the Department of Justice in terms of guidance.”

In April, a state Justice Department attorney advised the Department of Administrative Services it had to release month and year of birth.

In a separate action a month later, Deputy Attorney General Fred Boss said in a public records order that complete dates of birth should not be disclosed in a different case. He wrote in response to a request for state records from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank seeking to contact home health care workers.

On June 18, DAS Director Katy Coba emailed agency leaders to alert them about The Oregonian’s imminent publication of a public employee salary database. That was when most state employees learned their personal information had been requested.

Steve Suo, managing producer for the newspaper’s investigative team, said The Oregonian didn’t intend to publish partial birth dates, race or gender as part of the database.

“We want to make sure whatever we publish does not cause harm,” he said.

He said reporters sought detailed information to analyze pay disparities among demographic groups or within certain departments.

Suo said the paper occasionally hears from people concerned about their names being online and consider those on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve been working since (the union’s report) to figure out who we need to eliminate from the online database,” he said. “We’re hoping that DAS has some way of being able to suppress sensitive information if need be, as they do, for example, with the home addresses of law enforcement officers or judges.”

After learning on June 18 about the data given to The Oregonian, Unger questioned Elena Pirtle-Guiney, the governor’s labor relations liaison. She asked why the personal information was released, insisting the birth dates, in particular, are protected. The union leader said she also talked to Blosser by phone.

Two days later, Blosser directed Coba by letter to create a working group that would discuss the issues and the different responses to requests from The Oregonian and Freedom Foundation. The letter also suggested the group review whether demographic information, such as race or gender, should only be released generically.

Blosser clarified Thursday that his letter “wasn’t perfectly written” and he intended to focus on birth dates, not other demographics. He also said his reference to Cambridge Analytica was “probably too loaded a term.” The organization’s use of detailed personal data from Facebook sparked hearings before Congress about online privacy. The data requested by The Oregonian and the Freedom Foundation was not as detailed as that gathered by Cambridge Analytica.

“The point is there are very sophisticated marketers and database aficionados that can assemble sets of data for a whole bunch of different purposes,” said Blosser, who had previously worked as a digital marketer. “We need to strike the right balance between public disclosure and some reasonable privacy protections.”

State and national organizations representing journalists and advocating for transparency in government questioned why Oregon’s governor would create a new working group when the state already has two government committees to review public records laws. The Sunshine Committee, overseen by the attorney general, has 10 years to review all exemptions to Oregon’s Public Records Act and recently had several people testify about the release of employees’ public information.

The Public Records Advisory Council, whose members are appointed by the governor, could take on the issue, but that group’s leader, Ginger McCall, said the council wants to leave exemption questions to the Sunshine Committee.

Blosser said he didn’t care which group reviewed the issue.

Unger was glad the governor’s office seemed to be taking the union’s concerns seriously, but said they had not requested the working group.

“There should be a continued check on information requested about public employees,” Unger said. “We should establish procedure about this. ‘This is the DOJ attorney to check with. These are the steps in the process.’ That’s what we want.”

The debate about what kinds of public employee information is public likely will not fade quietly after a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. The court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that state employees aren’t required to pay union dues if they aren’t union members. In Oregon, state workers have had to pay those dues even if they aren’t in the union in what has been labeled their “fair share” of costs for labor negotiations.

Political observers expect conservative groups to now encourage more people to leave unions or stop paying such fees. Public employees are represented by the largest union in most states, making public information about them prized by activists who want to directly contact state workers.

“We’ve really got to think about this now and how do we provide the right balance,” Blosser said. “And, frankly, not get in the middle of what is going to be a big battle between the union and the Freedom Foundation.”

Reporter Jayme Fraser: [email protected] or 541-473-3377