COLUMN: Getting public records helps the Enterprise watch over government

Word of the big national award for the Malheur Enterprise came as a surprise.

We had no advance word from the Poynter Institute, a national organization that managed the competition.

I happened to see a notice on X, formerly Twitter, that awards had been announced. With friends in journalism all over the country, I’m always interested in who wins.

Going down the list, winners included the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post, which got a win for work done in part by a former colleague of mine at The Oregonian.

Then, fifth on the list: “The First Amendment Award – Awarded to the staff of the Malheur Enterprise.”

I sat bolt upright in my chair. I had to read it again to be sure.

“The award is given to the best example of protecting or advancing freedom of information principles, and/or overcoming significant resistance to the application of the First Amendment,” the announcement said.

For the tiny family-owned Enterprise, this was a good day at the office. The win was made even more sweet knowing that the finalists were much larger news outfits – Newsday and the Washington Post.

In a video announcement, a Poynter executive explained the awards recognize “some of the best and most impactful journalism work” in 2023.

That’s heady stuff.

But what does it matter to Malheur County?

Well, we hope you take pride that local journalists brought home a big-time national honor.

More importantly, it underscores the professionalism we bring to our work. At the core of what we do is safeguarding citizens’ access to government information. We serve as your watchdog, tracking how those in government use their power and your money.

That’s not always been easy because, until recently, officials across Malheur County were used to controlling the information. Reporters in the area accepted what they told, put it in a story and called it done.

Our news team in recent years has worked differently. Reporters question government reports, examine spending, and press officials to explain matters of public concern.

They aren’t always so willing to do so.

The reporting we’ve done over the years on the Treasure Valley Reload Center is the most obvious example. We battled Greg Smith for years to get at the truth. But less well-known is that we repeatedly pressed county officials to step in to end the stonewalling. Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce most often ducked, letting Smith run amok. Commissioner Ron Jacobs too was more often critical of the Enterprise than the squandering ways at the reload center.

The Enterprise had to take the reload center and Malheur County to court to enforce the state’s public records laws. These days, few media organizations have the resources to do that ­– and government officials know that. They seem to gamble that they can stiff arm us and citizens from public information and documents without recourse.

We’re in other public records scraps at the moment.

The Ontario School District has been stalling and delaying our requests for documents on a number of topics. Some school board members have ignored requests for their records, as if the law doesn’t apply to them. But that conduct is really not a snub of the Enterprise. It’s a thumb-on-the-nose to the community – it’s none of your business.

And as reporter Steven Mitchell recently reported, school district officials provided differing accounts about what documents existed ­– or no longer did. That’s not transparency. That’s intended to frustrate journalists enough that they will give up and move on. Not us.

And we’re dealing with a remarkable stonewalling effort at Eastern Oregon University. We’ve been doubling back on its contract with Greg Smith, checking to see if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. The university has and still is fighting us every step of the way.

University officials, for instance, initially said there were no time records for those working under Greg Smith’s contract. They made the claim even though they had been ordered five years ago to turn over similar records. Then, suddenly, the university said in fact it there were such records and turned them over.

And the university has a $150,000-a-year lawyer on its staff, paid for by taxpayers. As the Enterprise pressed for documents, though, the university brought in a big Portland law firm to ward off the newspaper. The lead attorney once worked for now-disgraced former Gov. John Kitzhaber. Her firm is charging the university $405 an hour for her work.

At this juncture, we have no attorney budget to match that. We’re a small outfit, and we don’t have deep pockets to retain lawyers. Still, we’re fighting on.


Because that’s what readers of the Enterprise expect ­– that we won’t be bullied out of finding the truth.

The work isn’t easy. Some public officials are harsh in their criticism of the Enterprise. And we have to understand the public records law in detail to make it work for you.

That’s why the national award is so gratifying. Our colleagues at the highest level of journalism in the country assessed our work. They judged it some of the most important in the U.S.

We agree.

Keeping you informed, watching out for your interests, is the most important work we do.

PS: Keep the Enterprise strong for you:

PS: Keep the Enterprise strong for you

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