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Editorials from around Oregon

July 24, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, July 24, on the effort to recall the governor:

The Oregon Republican Party has a problem with how Gov. Kate Brown is doing her job. That’s no surprise, considering that she’s a Democrat and has pursued priorities that conflict head-on with the values of social and fiscal conservatives.

But disagreement over priorities is not a legitimate reason to launch a recall effort, as the state GOP did earlier this month. Specifically, state Republican party chairman Bill Currier cited a new business tax, passage of a bill providing driver’s licenses to people without proof of citizenship, and Brown’s pledge to pursue goals of a failed climate-change bill through executive action as reasons for the recall, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Hillary Borrud reported. While it remains to be seen exactly how Brown plans to pursue carbon-reduction strategies, nothing the governor has done suggests she has misused her office or engaged in corruption or behavior worthy of a recall.

Certainly, Republicans — not to mention Democrats, Independents and many others — have valid complaints about Brown’s leadership, from her dithering on the public pension system’s unfunded liability to the continued dysfunction at the Department of Human Services.

She has done little to mend the divide between urban and rural Oregon, a cultural clash that is all but killing the “Oregon way” that once fueled cooperative, groundbreaking policy. And “transparency” is largely a buzzword in her administration rather than a genuine ethic.

But those are flaws voters accepted when they decisively reelected her — over a credible Republican opponent — in the November 2018 election. The ballots were in a long time ago and there’s no value in trying to force a redo.

If Republicans want to ward off legislation, they should either use established channels of challenging laws or focus on winning more elections. Seeking a recall of the governor is both a waste of time and a self-inflicted wound to the GOP’s credibility — something the party can ill afford after Republican senators staged two walkouts this past session in protest of Democrat-backed legislation. While such chest-beating may trigger a short-term gain in Republican party unity, the party’s dwindling share of the electorate in Oregon show what a losing proposition that is.

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The Bulletin, July 23, on the state of Oregon’s foster care system:

If Oregonians were expecting to see problems in the state’s foster care system disappear overnight, they’re in for a disappointment. As the Department of Human Services’ July report on child welfare demonstrates, some things are improving; others, not so much.

The foster care program certainly needs to improve. A secretary of state’s 2018 audit of the program made clear Oregon’s foster care system was in disarray, putting children’s safety at risk. A follow-up issued in 2019 showed that while improvements were being made in some areas, serious problems remain.

DHS has been issuing monthly reports to Gov. Kate Brown on its progress. The July update says:

—The agency is still short of foster homes, though the numbers show a mixed bag.

The total number of foster homes is actually down from a year ago, though it has ticked up each month since March.

—Fewer children are being sent to out-of-state facilities than were a year ago. It will take time to create programs to serve specific groups of children, and the state is working to improve the way it deals with kids who must go elsewhere to receive the services they need.

—Though the agency is working to hire and keep new caseworkers, it’s still losing about half as many as it brings on. It has created a series of videos to give potential hires a realistic view of the job.

—The statewide child abuse reporting line is up and running, though it’s a 24/7 operation in only nine of the agency’s 16 districts. The remaining six will be added as improvements to the system and Child Protective Services are made.

The July report is based on results before the agency’s budget was increased by the Legislature. The new money could help speed improvements up, and that’s good. After all, the wellbeing of some of the state’s most vulnerable residents is at stake.

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Corvallis Gazette-Times, July 23, on the state’s steps forward and backward on open records laws:

By some measurements, this year’s legislative session wasn’t a bad one for proponents of a transparent state government.

On the plus side, legislators passed a bill that could give some teeth to an earlier measure that established deadlines for governmental entities to respond to requests for records. A law passed by the 2017 session requires governmental bodies to acknowledge requests for records within five business days after receiving a request. And the law requires those bodies to fulfill those requests within 15 days, although the law does offer a variety of escape hatches in cases where it would be unduly burdensome to produce the records in that time frame.

Under the terms of a bill passed by the 2019 session, governments can be fined up to $200 or ordered to waive fees for gathering the records if a district attorney or the state attorney general determines that the delay is unreasonable.

This probably won’t amount to much (the fine isn’t particularly huge, and we suspect most district attorneys will not have much of an appetite to slap sanctions on entities under their jurisdiction), but this measure at least represents a small step forward.

The Legislature also approved a bill that made permanent the state’s Public Records Advisory Council; when the 2017 Legislature first approved creation of the council, it made it temporary. But these public records issues aren’t going away any time soon, so lawmakers made the right call when they made the council permanent.

And the Legislature did block a measure that would have represented a big step backward: a bill that would have required requesting parties to explain why they wanted access to the records died after word of the legislation spread. If a record is public, the government has no business asking why a citizen wants access to it. It is the business of the government to release that public record, no questions asked.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this session ended up inflicting another two dozen or so wounds to the state’s open records laws.

It happens every session: Legislators pass bills that exempt from public inspection records that used to be open. In many cases, these bills are passed without much notice or public debate; in some cases, they slide through in the frenzy that accompanies the final few days of a session.

In any event, the end result is the same: The public loses access to yet another set of records that used to be open to inspection. Some of these so-called exemptions to the public records law are justified for privacy or other reasons. But many of them are not, and exist primarily because it’s more convenient for parties to keep that information confidential.

No one knows for sure how many of these exemptions exist in state law; the best guess now is more than 650. And no one knows yet for sure how many new exemptions the Legislature added during its 2019 session. Ginger McCall, the state’s public records advocate, told members of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association last week that her best guess now is somewhere around 25, but she’s still plowing through all the legislation that passed during the session.

Another committee, the Oregon Sunshine Committee for Public Records Law Reform, is working to review all the exemptions in state law, with an eye toward identifying the ones that no longer can be justified (if they ever could). The timeline for that work stretches out over the next 10 years, and this year’s Legislature has added to the task.

We’ve always argued that government works best when it functions in the sunshine — and when citizens have easy access to records that help illuminate its workings. Oregon’s records laws used to be among the best in the nation, but the sunshine fades a bit with every new exemption lawmakers approve. It will require sustained work to turn up the light.

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