AP NEWS

Editorials from around Oregon

January 16, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Bend Bulletin, Jan. 15, on improving Oregon’s public records law:

People seeking public records in Oregon get all kinds of abuse. Public agencies ignore them. Agencies overcharge them. Sometimes, agencies even sue requesters to stop from having to fulfill a request.

That’s not the way the state’s public records law is supposed to work. But that’s the way some public agencies choose to implement the law — especially when a requester is seeking information that could make the agency look bad.

Several bills in the Legislature propose changes in the law to improve it. Not all of them will.

Two would make things worse. House Bill 2345 would reduce the public record fees charged by state agencies to members of the news media by 50 percent. If a request is narrowly tailored, the agency would be required to waive any fees.

This would be great for members of the news media. But it’s the public records law, not the news media records law. The law is for any member of the public. The news media does not deserve a special discounted rate. The news media should pay or not pay the same amount as any other member of the public.

Senate Bill 609 would require that a requester tell a public agency how he or she intends to use the requested records. That’s no business of the government. It’s a public record. That means it’s the public’s information. Agencies could use the information from a requester to deny and delay requests. If a requester wants to disclose the information, that’s one thing. That may help in disputes over the costs of records or in disputes over why a record should be public. But the disclosure should not be required.

There are also two proposed changes in the law that could make things better. House Bill 2353 adds some teeth. It would allow the attorney general, district attorney or a court to award a penalty to a requester — and attorney fees — if a public agency fails to respond to a request or responds to undue delay. The bill does not put a dollar figure on the penalty.

For instance, last year the Oregon Department of Human Services put us through the public records ringer. We asked for details about how it was responding to a state audit that said the agency was guilty of “chronic management failures and high caseloads” that “jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.” After more than a month went by without details, we asked for emails related to our request for information. The agency had 15 business days under public records law to tell us what was going on. It did not. It did not face any penalty for failing to comply with the law. We did eventually get what we asked for. But should public agencies be able to violate the law without even a token penalty? We don’t think so.

Ginger McCall, the state’s public records advocate, has pushed for another change in Oregon law that in a way has taken shape in House Bill 2431. The bill requires state agencies to make public the number of requests it received, the number of requests unfulfilled and information about how much was charged.

Passing the bill will enable Oregonians to better understand how well the public records law works — or often doesn’t.

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Baker City Herald, Jan. 14, on a volatile episode at city’s airport:

The incident at the Baker City Airport Tuesday had some of the elements common to episodes that end in tragedy.

This one, fortunately, ended only with an arrest.

No one was hurt.

Police say Scott William Chase, a 46-year-old man whose background includes criminal charges as well as a diagnosis of mental issues, drove a converted school bus onto a runway at the Baker City Airport.

Chase refused to exit the bus when confronted by officers from the Baker City Police and Baker County Sheriff’s Office. Police had reason to believe Chase had guns in the bus — and officers did find firearms in the vehicle after Chase was arrested.

The owner of Baker Aircraft, Troy Woydziak, radioed a flight instructor who was in the air with a student pilot. They landed safely, and Woydziak issued a notice to other pilots that the airport, which has relatively little traffic on cloudy winter days, would be temporarily closed.

Police had the area secured, and there was no reason to rush and, potentially, provoke a violent response from Chase.

Authorities called in the Northeast Oregon SWAT team about 2:30 p.m. Around 4:50 p.m. Chase walked out of the bus, and SWAT members arrested him without incident.

There is of course no way to predict how a potentially volatile situation will be resolved.

But ultimately the outcome is what matters, and the many agencies involved deserve credit for managing the incident in a responsible and, in the end successful, way.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Jan. 13, on Legislature needing to welcome BOLI’s help:

State labor investigators’ report into sexual harassment at the state Capitol gave Oregonians plenty of reason to lose confidence in some of their elected officials.

It wasn’t just the dumbfounding instances documented in the report in which male legislators inappropriately touched or made suggestive comments to female interns, lobbyists and colleagues. Or the pressure some victims said they felt from human resources and legislative lawyers to keep quiet about any harassment claims. It was also the unsympathetic and even irate reactions by legislative leaders to Sen. Sara Gelser, the lawmaker who went public about repeated harassment by then-Sen. Jeff Kruse.

The report offers a highly selective view of all that transpired — Bureau of Labor and Industries investigators didn’t interview many key players before pushing out the report before Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian left office. But the underlying message is a solid one: The Legislature should not be trusted to make necessary changes without some outside oversight.

That’s not an indictment of legislative leaders’ will to improve both the process through which sex harassment complaints are handled and the culture of the state Capitol as a whole. Gelser’s public airing of her allegations against Kruse in 2017 sparked the Oregon Legislature’s own #MeToo awakening. Well before the BOLI investigation, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek ordered their own investigation into Kruse’s behavior and tasked the Oregon Law Commission with developing recommendations for handling sexual harassment complaints. Both Courtney and Kotek told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that they expect the Legislature to adopt many of these changes in the upcoming session and have created a joint committee on Capitol culture to lead the process. And they are planning extensive training for legislators, staff and lobbyists to help cement people’s understanding of appropriate behavior to ensure the culture, not just the process, promotes safety.

That said, the degree of difficulty here is incredibly high. While the Legislative Assembly acts as an employer of permanent staffers and interns, legislators are independently elected officials who answer to voters, leaving few options for disciplining a lawmaker. Setting up guard rails for what is and is not acceptable behavior risks becoming overly prescriptive in a workplace where personal relationships are currency. And Courtney, Kotek and others have stumbled in figuring out how to address workplace policies in an apolitical manner — a difficult needle to thread in a workplace where politics is the primary reason for people to be there in the first place.

And finally, making even modest changes in workplace culture are difficult. This change, however, is monumental. For decades, women in the workplace got the message, formally and informally, to simply ignore, laugh off, or silently endure inappropriate comments, touching and other harassment. In many workplaces, women were expected to simply “act professional” by disregarding the decidedly unprofessional conduct of men. That the pendulum could swing so swiftly from one side to the other is both energizing and daunting.

Courtney and Kotek’s own actions, as presented in the BOLI report, show just how challenging it is to change culture and mindsets when those leading the change have been part of the culture for so long. While they vehemently dispute investigators’ conclusions that they knowingly allowed workplace harassment and failed to act appropriately to previous complaints, both conceded to The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that a revamp of policies is sorely needed. And both reacted in disappointing fashion in separate interactions with Gelser.

Gelser, a Democrat like Courtney and Kotek, was berated by Courtney in a restaurant last year after she pressed him on the need for a larger conversation about the Legislature’s handling of workplace harassment. And Kotek, according to Gelser’s account in the BOLI report, declined to immediately issue a public call for Kruse to resign due to her political read of the situation, telling her that some people consider her “unlikable.” Both apologized.

Fortunately, the Legislature doesn’t have to figure out the way forward on its own. While the BOLI complaint, filed by Avakian, engendered a fair amount of acrimony and expense as the agency and Legislature battled over BOLI’s authority to investigate it, Avakian’s departure may mean more cooperation ahead.

After new Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, a former legislator, wisely recused herself from the case, the agency on Friday announced it will work with the Legislature to resolve the complaint through mediation under a third-party. That kind of ongoing partnership that allows an outside eye on the Legislature just might be the kind of culture change that it needs.

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