Commentary

COLUMN: Some public officials seem intent on keeping citizens away from records

Some of those entrusted with government power don’t like the rest of us looking over their shoulders.

That’s evident from recent experiences seeking public documents, from the Ontario School District to the Oregon Department of Education.

Oregon’s tradition is that government business is done in the open. With few exceptions, voters and taxpayers have the right to watch what public officials do.

The point of the Oregon Public Records Law is clear, at least to the state’s high courts. Citizens generally have a legal right to public documents “to determine whether those who have been entrusted with the affairs of government are honestly, faithfully and competently performing their function as public servants.”

At the Malheur Enterprise, we often seek government records to determine just that.

Let me share some experiences in recent months where public officials put up walls.

Consider the Ontario School District.

Since Greg Smith left town, this government has moved to the top rank of obstructionists.

Earlier this year, reporter Steven Mitchell asked for what seemed to be routine documents. He wanted to see records of the Ontario School Board about the evaluation of Superintendent Nikki Albisu.

Taryn Smith, the district’s communications officer who reports to Albisu, over about a month’s time changed her story three times about some of those records. She’s never responded to questions to explain, and I alerted her I’d be writing about this. She was invited to comment. She maintained her silence.

Here are her explanations for what became of documents held by school board members as they evaluated the superintendent.

Explanation one: District officials “verified with board members that any notes were discarded after the meeting.”

Explanation two: The district collected and destroyed extra copies of what Albisu submitted to the board for her evaluation. No other documents were collected from board members.

Explanation three:  The only documents from the evaluation session were the board secretary’s notes, which she then wrote over to produce a final report for the board.

Some board members ignored our requests.

Two board members then made surprising admissions.

Blanca Rodriguez told us in an email that she destroyed any notes after the evalua-

tion.

And Board chair Bret Uptmor said he had to recover board documents he pitched

into recycling.

The public officials weren’t just stiffing journalists at the Enterprise. They were stiffing the public’s right to monitor the honesty and competency of their work.

Not too long ago, the Enterprise sued the school board to court to get records. We got the documents and the district had to cover our legal costs.

More recently, district officials wouldn’t provide information about student enrollments and staffing at elementary schools. We were assessing changes with the closure of two schools. Our questions were pretty basic.

With no answers, the Enterprise was forced to request the numbers through a public records request.

Nearly three weeks have passed and, as of Monday, the Ontario School District has not released a single page.

Over the mountains in Salem, the Oregon Department of Education is building a reputation among journalists it shouldn’t want. In the experience of the Enterprise, agency officials make it hard to determine whether they are competently performing.

When the news team sought records not long ago, the email response came signed by the “Public Records Team.” Those on this team, presumably, decide what public documents will be released and what will be kept secret.

I decided to learn who was on the team. The informal request to the state was straightforward: “Please provide the names of those who serve on ODE’s Public Records Team.”

Peter Rudy of the agency’s communications team responded two days later.

“The ODE public records email inbox is managed by several staff within ODE,” he wrote, providing no names.

We then filed a public records request to get the names. A week later, we got one document listing four employees. That took 13 days to get information that should have been provided immediately – if not already listed on the Education Department’s website.

Then there is Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.

For years, the university has contracted with Greg Smith, once Malheur County’s economic development director.

Earlier this year, the Enterprise emailed the university’s communications team, asking for one fact: the dollar amount of Smith’s current contract.

There’s no secret about such information, it’s readily available to university officials, but instead of one number, a university official wrote back: “All requests for public information must be submitted through our public records request process.”

The university later couldn’t document that it had any such policy, that media questions had to be framed as public records requests.

Then, when the Enterprise started filing a series of public records requests, the university complained about the requests. EOU then hired a Portland lawyer at about $400 an hour to review requests, though it has an attorney on staff – paid $152,000 a year to provide legal work.

When the news team sought certain email records, the university said that would cost the Enterprise $800. We got curious how they figured that, so we asked for the records of that matter.

Nothing doing, the university said. EOU claimed that every public record about how it calculated a charge to provide public documents was considered a secret.

Such efforts that appear to deter more than disclose require a lot of time by the Enterprise team to resist. We don’t ask for documents needlessly. We’re not just rummaging around government file cabinets out of curiosity. We’re doing our job to establish if public officials are “honestly, faithfully and competently performing.”

Readers expect that from us, to be on guard for government abuses and incompetence.

My suspicion is that public officials well understand that the ranks of journalists are thinning and those left have fewer resources to combat government secrecy. Their reasoning seems to be that if they just throw enough logs in our way, we’ll give up and go away.

Not at the Enterprise. We’ll use what tools we have to chainsaw our way through the obstacles, to keep pressing for records – and the truth.

We won’t be dissuaded by obstruction, ridicule or even threats. Officials who try such tactics can expect that, on behalf of citizens, we’ll resist with all our might.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

News tip? Send your information to [email protected].

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