EDITORIAL: In Malheur County, citizens and government benefit from transparency

This is Sunshine Week, and not because spring is near and we’re seeing more clear skies. Rather, this is the time for us all to pause and celebrate our legal and moral right to information about our government. That access to our government institutions is not a privilege given to us by those in power, but a right retained by every citizen, regardless of income, education, or social standing.

Powerful laws are in place to guard your right to see government information. On the national level, the Freedom of Information Act provides anyone the ability to see how federal agencies are working. The federal law has become cumbersome, yet remains the flag of transparency that waves over every federal official. 

In Oregon, we have the Oregon Public Records Law, which is pretty plain about who it is protecting. “Every person has a right to inspect any public record of a public body,” the law says. That’s strong language. You don’t have to be a lawyer or a reporter or even a government official to ask to see government records. You don’t have to explain who you are or why you want to see the records.

There are exceptions, of course. Not every record held by government is or should be generally accessible to the public.

And many government officials obey the spirit of the law. They don’t quibble over government records. They willingly share. The city of Ontario is a good local example.

But governments too often these days tilt towards more secrecy than less. Government officials sometimes seem keen to conceal the truth than share it. Why does that matter? Without access, citizens and the press can’t keep an eye on those government officials.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrote in one case that federal disclosure laws provide for “an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”

The late journalist Daniel Schorr put the balance in useful perspective: “I have no doubt that the nation has suffered more from undue secrecy than from undue disclosure. The government takes good care of itself.” 

The ability to get to government records is important to people in Malheur County.

Without that law, the public would know little about how Anthony Montwheeler came to be a free man by fooling state officials into thinking he was mentally ill.

Without that law, the public would know little about those who want to sell marijuana here in Malheur County.

And without that law, the public would know little about how land costs for the proposed rail shipping center have doubled without explanation.

Sunshine Week arrives as the Enterprise continues digging out the facts about that rail center. County officials, particularly Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, are complaining that the Enterprise is asking questions and seeking records. The county ought to be celebrating that anyone is interested in getting out the facts about how public money is being used. The only reason a public official would be troubled by such requests is if they are nervous about the community’s reaction to the information.

In recent weeks, the Enterprise has taken criticism from those promoting the rail project. Industry and county officials said our reporting is too “negative.” The message seems to be that they would prefer we suppress the truth, that we paint a happy picture over the facts.

Now, county officials are using the law to discourage access to their records. Malheur County wants to charge $8.75 to produce a single page. The message we’re hearing: We’re going to make it so costly for you to get a public document so you’ll give up.

For the Enterprise, it would be easy to walk away and give up. Citizens wouldn’t know. And government officials would like us. But that’s not right. The right to government information is not a favor bestowed by government officials, but a duty they are supposed to fulfill. When they delay and obstruct access to records that show how they are spending your money and who’s profiting, they are not just blocking us – they are trying to pull the shades and keep you, the public, in the dark.

We hope every citizen in Malheur County will join us in celebrating that right to see public records and to hold accountable those who want to use the power and money that you have granted them.

– LZ

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