Editorials from around Oregon

July 5, 2018

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:


The Register-Guard, July 1, on ballot-title review process:

Sponsors of an initiative to ban some semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines were confident of their ability to gather the 88,000 petition signatures needed to qualify their proposal for Oregon’s November ballot. But court battles over the proposal’s ballot title consumed too much time. It’s the latest example of initiative opponents winning not at the ballot box, but by running out the clock. The Legislature needs to improve the process for ballot-title review so it can’t be used as a tool of obstruction.

The Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled that the ballot title for Initiative Petition 43, as written by the attorney general’s office, was unclear in referring to “assault rifles.” Groups that defend gun rights dislike that term, which has no precise technical definition. The court sent the ballot title back to the attorney general office for a rewrite. But the July 6 deadline for turning in petition signatures was fast approaching, and last week sponsors abandoned their effort, saying they would try again in 2020.

This isn’t the first time ballot title disputes have kept an initiative proposal from reaching the ballot. Just a week earlier, organizers of a campaign to require safe firearms storage said the lack of an approved ballot title would keep them from placing an initiative on the November ballot. And it’s not just gun-control measures that are affected: A determined legal assault on a ballot title can delay any initiative and defeat many of them.

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson proposed earlier this year that initiative sponsors be permitted to collect petition signatures with a ballot title approved by the attorney general, even though such titles are subject to court challenge. The result, however, could be that Oregonians would be asked to sign petitions for proposals with one ballot title, and then vote on the same proposal with a different title. This would invite confusion — or, critics warned, deceptive initiative campaign practices.

A better approach would be to expedite the process of review so that initiative sponsors who begin their campaigns early enough would be assured of having enough time for signature gathering even after ballot-title challenges had been exhausted. Such an approach would ensure fair ballot titles — while also preserving access to the initiative process. Citizens’ right to initiate legislation is useful only if it can actually be used.


The Mail Tribune, July 5, on redemption centers to collect bottles:

Through the powers of the Legislature — and with a considerable push from grocery store retailers — Oregon established redemption centers to collect bottles and cans subject to the state’s pioneering Bottle Bill requirements. Those centers, also referred to as BottleDrops, were good in concept.

They are a functional failure, however, if Medford’s BottleDrop is any indicator. Based on reports from elsewhere in the state, we are not alone in our displeasure over the operations. The Legislature created this; it now needs to fix it.

The local center is too small, apparently understaffed, and generally a rank and dirty place. Neighbors of the BottleDrop on Stowe Avenue in northwest Medford say those are the least of their concerns, as the arrival of the center brought with it a surge of ne’er-do-wells who camp on their properties, buy and use drugs — leaving behind dangerous syringes — and generally trash the neighborhood. Surrounding businesses have turned into fortresses, with barbed-wire-topped fences to keep would-be intruders at bay.

Neighbors of a Beaverton BottleDrop tell a similar story: cups of urine left in parking lots, buildings and equipment vandalized and regular drug use.

The BottleDrop idea was developed as an alternative to the process of customers returning bottles and cans to grocery stores, which found themselves dealing with the mess and, to a lesser degree, the undesirables who congregated near the machines (which seemed to routinely malfunction).

The redemption center law, which began as a test in 2011, allows grocery stores located within two miles of a center to contract with that center and decline to accept bottles and cans at their locations. Stores within three and a half miles can limit the number of returns to 24 per person per day.

The BottleDrops have a bonus feature — you can create an account at the center and receive a card and stickers with your own bar code. Then you can place your bottles and cans in a bag, mark it with a sticker and drop it in an outside door. Scan your bar code at a participating store and you’ll get a voucher to cash in at a register.

One BottleDrop is scarcely adequate for a city the size of Medford, however, and since it’s the only one in Jackson County, it ends up serving an even larger population. On weekends, the parking lot is overtaxed, the line to use the center’s machines stretches out the door and the receiving area for the tagged bags is clogged with bags that have not been dealt with. It is simply an inadequate facility.

The Legislature, in establishing the redemption centers, failed to address their ability to handle the resulting demand and failed to consider that centralizing the service in one location also would centralize a group of people who might not be the best of citizens. Establishing more specific rules about the centers’ operations and quantity of returnables received could help ameliorate both of those concerns.

Then the BottleDrops could become both a good concept and a good service.


Baker City Herald, July 4, on reducing wildfire risk in Baker City’s watershed:

The best time to reduce the risk of a big wildfire in Baker City’s watershed was probably several decades ago.

Which is not to say it’s too late.

Despite the Forest Service’s hands-off approach to the 10,000 acres in the Elkhorn Mountains through which the city’s drinking water flows — not that a heavy-handed approach would be an improvement, to be sure — the watershed has avoided the fiery disaster that could leave the city without a safe water supply.

And a bill likely to exceed $15 million or $20 million to fix the problem.

Managing the watershed is a challenge.

It is not a place where conventional commercial forestry, designed to maximize the production of board-feet of timber, makes sense. One reason the streams and springs continue to produce clear water is that the forests remain intact, able to absorb torrential rains and the spring runoff without turning into muddy torrents unfit for drinking or much else.

But those forests, as forests inevitably will, have aged and, in places, deteriorated, the victims of insects and disease and drought. A study in the 1990s by fire experts found that the area probably is overdue, statistically, for a big blaze.

We can’t eliminate that risk, of course.

But we can reduce it with well-conceived, and carefully executed, thinning of some of the densest, least healthy and most fire-prone parts of the watershed.

And in one sense this might be the ideal time to pursue that strategy.

Congress this spring at long last ended the practice known as “fire borrowing.” That refers to the Forest Service and other federal agencies diverting money earmarked for other work — including the sorts of thinning projects envisioned for the watershed — to pay the billion-dollar annual tabs to fight wildfires.

To put it another way, agencies have struggled to deal with the problems that contribute to massive blazes because they were trying to put out... massive blazes.

The bill that passed this year won’t immediately fix the problem. But by 2020 the federal government will set aside $2 billion annually, as an emergency fund, to fight the bigger fires. In theory that should make more money available for thinning projects.

Nor is that the only way Congress can help in this endeavor.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden last week sent a letter to the Forest Service’s regional office in Portland advocating for Baker City’s watershed to be a priority for some of those dollars.

The threat facing the watershed is hardly of recent origin. In 1993 the Forest Service and city sponsored a tour of the watershed during which officials cited the same concerns that their successors talk about today.

We hope the combination of congressional support — and money — will yield more tangible results in the future than we’ve seen in the past.


The Daily Astorian, July 5, on patriotism:

This nation started with a bang. It began with fighting words and we celebrate its birth every year with fireworks.

The Declaration of Independence, as it was soon known, laid down a brave vision for the United States. We were unified by the guiding principle that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were the rights of all people under God, and that a new country would be formed first and foremost to protect those rights.

We went to war for those ideals, throwing off a monarchy that believed it was the purveyor of God’s divine will. We wrestled with how those rights should be interpreted in law and in government. Our forefathers went to great lengths to create a system that could be sustained and secured, even as competing interests would try to take it away or bend it to their will.

As we look back now — 242 years into this democratic experiment — it’s amazing to see how much has worked. Our Constitution remains a garrison against government overreach and our checks and balances in the courts and the Congress have kept tyranny at bay.

It has failed on other fronts, historically, as we trampled or outright ignored the rights of marginalized people who stood in the way of those in power. And every day it is threatened by those who think the country is theirs, singularly, rather than ours, collectively.

But the reason it has worked as well as it has is because of patriots who have put the good of the country ahead of themselves, even so far as laying down their lives and personal freedoms to protect it. They have shown with words and actions why this country’s ideals are worth defending.

That’s what patriotism does. It believes in the greater good of what the country stands for, and not merely the symbols that come along with it.

Nationalism, its dark cousin, demands homage to those symbols without respect for their underlying foundation — and it harbors suspicion and spite against those who understand those symbols differently.

Patriotism’s power comes from a love of country and its people and ideals, while nationalism’s power comes from a fear and hatred of the outside world.

Patriotism accepts past mistakes in hopes of building a better future. Nationalism ignores flaws, both past and present.

Patriotism inspires service to the country. Nationalism demands for allegiance to it.

Patriotism is more difficult. It is not merely waving a flag or reciting a pledge. It requires earnest attention, reflection and action. It requires good-faith debate about how our ideals should be practiced, and at the same time camaraderie in building a better country. It doesn’t allow minor differences to separate the greater unity and progress.

And true patriotism should always be on guard for the creep of nationalism, so the two will still be distinguishable in years to come.


Albany Democrat-Herald, July 2, on Gov. Kate Brown and open government:

The news is troubling for anyone concerned about the transparency and openness of Oregon state government: Gov. Kate Brown is considering new limits on what state employee information can be released to the public — and may end up proposing legislation to that end to the 2019 Legislature.

A story last week in The Oregonian reported the development, and added a detail that was equally troubling: The state’s administrative services director, Katy Coba, has ordered state agencies to notify and coordinate with the governor’s public records lawyer before they respond to a records request for a large dataset about any individual who provides information to the state.

Brown pledged that one of the hallmarks of her tenure as governor would be an unflagging commitment to transparency, but her record on the issue has been spotty — meaningful steps forward often have been followed by real steps back. Depending on what happens next with these initiatives, this could represent an additional backward slide.

According to Ted Sickinger’s story, Brown’s chief of staff, Nik Blosser, said that the idea to consider new limits came after the state released a database of state employee salaries to The Oregonian. The data released included names, titles, salaries, the months and years of employees’ births and information about gender and race.

The newspaper said its purpose was to allow the public to compare the pay of various public employees in each state agency. It said it has no intention of including personal identifiers in its online database. The information about gender, race and age groups is to be used to analyze pay equity among those groups.

All those are valid areas of public interest. In fact, you can argue that a very similar database, one showing the payments to participants in Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System, helped kick-start the debate over how best to reform the state’s troubled public pension system. (It’s worth remembering that the state released the pension information only after years of being hounded by The Oregonian and the Salem Statesman-Journal.)

To be fair, members of Brown’s staff say they will convene a work group to analyze any new limitations, and that the group will include the state’s new public records advocate and one journalist. Any proposal also would be vetted by the state’s Sunshine Committee, a panel of lawmakers, members of the media and the public formed to review requests for new public records exemptions. The work group may end up not making a recommendation at all, which would be fine.

The timing of the effort is suspicious, coming as it does after the state’s efforts to block the anti-union Freedom Foundation from obtaining the names and addresses of home health-care workers. After a 2014 Supreme Court opinion allowed those workers to opt out of paying union dues, the foundation sought that information so that it could send mailers to those workers. The state delayed the request until the Legislature passed a law exempting the information from public release.

If that union-dues issue sounds familiar, it’s because it was at the heart of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which ruled that public-union workers who choose not to join unions don’t have to pay “fair-share” fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining. The ruling is a big hit to public-employee unions.

It’s no secret that those unions are among the governor’s biggest supporters; in fact, she issued a statement last week after the Janus ruling saying that she stood by unions.

Fair enough. But does that pro-union stance include a willingness to weaken the state’s public records laws in what could be an attempt to protect the interests of those unions? And what can we expect now that requests for big datasets are being funneled directly to the governor’s public-records lawyer? As the 2018 campaign for governor starts to heat up, these are questions that Brown needs to answer.

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