AP NEWS

Editorial: Fight for transparency during Sunshine Week

March 13, 2019
The sun begins to set behind a mountain as seen from Old Garden Valley Road in 2017.

Just about every day has some sort of holiday attached to it these days. March 3 was National If Pets Had Thumbs Day, March 6 was National Frozen Food Day, and Sunday was National Find a Pay Phone Booth Day.

But Monday marked the beginning of a week-long celebration that we think everyone should pay attention to.

Sunshine Week, which runs from March 10-16, celebrates access to public information and government transparency.

Everyone has something to say — good or bad — about government, but it’s still often misunderstood just how much work government agencies do, and how much of it is done in our name, with our authority and with our money.

Sunshine Week is here to remind us that we the people have the right to access public information so we can understand what our government is doing and then hold it accountable.

Journalists across the country, including those at The News-Review, work tirelessly to collect documents, attend public meetings and share what they’ve learned so that those who don’t have the time or ability to navigate state and federal laws can still find themselves informed.

Here in Douglas County, public documents detailed rifts between Douglas County Assessor Roger Hartman and several county employees and uncovered that Roseburg City Council President Tom Ryan was using a private email to conduct public business. They shed light on Roseburg Public School’s decision making during a dispute between six student-athletes their coach, and they provided details about an internal investigation at the Roseburg Police Department that eventually led to the resignation of two officers.

But as important as those stories are, lawmakers and lobbyists are still working to limit the amount of light they’re required to let in. In Oregon alone, lawmakers are considering more than 50 bills to change Oregon’s public records laws.

Some would keep secret information about bidding on public proposals until after the contract has been awarded, including those from the Public Employee’s Benefit Board, the Oregon Educators Benefit Board and the Oregon State Lottery.

Another bill would require people who make a request for public records to disclose how the records would be used. But that bill would directly contradict the purpose of public information: If records are public, it doesn’t matter how they might be used and it isn’t the place of government to ask.

This bill, Senate Bill 609, would almost certainly have a chilling effect on state and local records, a result that insults the entire idea of government transparency.

There are, however, a few bills that are being considered that would increase the public’s ability to obtain information that deserve your attention and support.

HB 2353 would hold government bodies that unduly delay releasing records accountable by forcing them to pay penalties and attorney fees to the requester. Currently, there’s no punishment for agencies that deny lawful requests.

HB 2430 would remove the sunset date of the Public Records Advisory Council, a committee created to analyze the list of 550 public records exemptions the state has on file.

HB 2345 would reduce the public records fee that state agencies charge the media by half and would in some cases eliminate the fee entirely. While that law doesn’t extend to local agencies — which would be helpful considering the Roseburg City Council last year reduced the amount of city staff time spent on public records requests before the city starts charging certain requesters — it’s a step in the right direction.

And finally, HB 2431, which would mandate that state agencies report to the state’s public records advocate the number of records requests its received and the number of those requests that remain unfulfilled.

In an age where the term “government transparency” is paramount in every political campaign, let’s all fight for a world where public information is public and that the access to that information is easy.

Because without transparency, a government of the people, by the people and for the people might perish from the earth.