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Editorials from around Oregon

By The Associated PressJuly 31, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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Mail Tribune, July 31, on public records ruling:

A retired judge’s ruling in a public-records case is certainly “confusing,” in the words of a newspaper-industry lawyer, but then, so is the statute the judge ruled on. The Legislature should clarify it.

At issue is the request of a West Linn teenager for notes taken during public meetings by a city council member. Rory Bialostosky, a 19-year-old college freshman, wanted West Linn City Councilor Teri Cummings to release the notes she took during council meetings as public records.

Retired Tax Court judge Henry C. Breithaupt, serving as a Clackamas County Circuit judge, ruled orally that the legislators who wrote Oregon’s public records law in the 1970s defined a public body subject to the law as including “every state officer, agency, department, division, bureau, board and commission; every county and city governing body, school district, special district, municipal corporation, and any board, department, commission, council, or agency thereof; and any other public agency of this state.”

The statute uses the term “officer” only in connection with state officials, not local ones, Breithaupt ruled, and therefore the disclosure requirement applies to individuals only at the state level, and only to records kept by councils, commissions and other collective bodies at the local level.

Besides the fact that this is counterintuitive — individual local officials are bound to follow public meetings and other laws governing the conduct of public officials — state Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall says she and “everybody” concerned with public records have interpreted the law to include individual local officials and trained them accordingly.

Jack Orchard, a lawyer who represents the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, acknowledged that the statute is unclear, but disagreed with the judge’s conclusion.

“The question is, is that what the legislature really intended?” Orchard told The Oregonian. “From a policy point, I don’t see the distinction.

“What difference does it make if you’re on the state Board of Education versus a member of the West Linn school board?” he asked.

Whether every note jotted down by a city councilor for personal use ought to be automatically public is another matter entirely. Cummings said she sought a narrow ruling pertaining to her notes going back many years, but not to exclude any record a city councilor might create. Breithaupt’s broad ruling raises the possibility of local governments using it to avoid releasing any and all records, not just personal notes.

The Legislature should amend the original text of the statute to make clear that it covers all public officials.

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The Register-Guard, July 30, on an Oregon delegation’s visit to the U.S.-Mexico border:

A Springfield physician and an Oregon politician have given hope to an expectant mother and her family.

Dr. Lauren Herbert, a pediatrician and infectious diseases specialist in Springfield, joined Sen. Ron Wyden and other Oregonians in visiting the U.S.-Mexico border this past weekend to get a firsthand look at the conditions facing migrants. They came away deeply disturbed by the conditions under which migrants were housed at facilities in El Paso, Texas, and Otero County, New Mexico.

Then, traveling across the border to Ciuadad Juárez, the Oregonians met a Mexican woman who was suffering complications late in her pregnancy, needed medical care but faced a months-long wait before U.S. border officials would even consider the family’s request for asylum.

Her situation changed when Wyden intervened with the assistance of Herbert and others. The U.S. border officers soon began processing the family’s asylum request and promised that the woman would be taken to a hospital for evaluation.

Meanwhile, countless other families remain huddled across the border, waiting to apply for asylum in the U.S., and thousands more children and adults already are held in U.S. facilities.

The Trump administration claims the conditions at the detention centers are fine and appropriate. That is not what was found by the Oregon delegation of Wyden; Herbert; Rabbi Michael Cahana, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Portland; and Stephen Manning and Ian Philabaum of the Portland-based Innovation Law Lab.

A humanitarian crisis exists on both sides of the border. The violence and poverty that pervade much of Mexico and Central America has caused thousands to flee northward. Yet the U.S. greets them with a bureaucratic morass that offers neither hope nor dignity, housing them in deplorable conditions until their future is determined.

It is unconscionable that the U.S. government would treat anyone this way — crowded together, unable to sleep, and without adequate medical care or hygiene — regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Children will face lifelong consequences from this traumatic treatment.

We have criticized Oregon’s congressional delegation for not doing more to keep the border crisis in the public eye and to achieve improvements. Wyden acted. His border visit this past weekend gained national attention, underscoring why congressional delegations should have unimpeded access to these facilities.

Sen. Jeff Merkley and Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici also were bringing the issue home to Oregonians, touring Portland shelters for migrant teens who crossed the border without parents or legal guardians. Their oversight tour on Sunday left the lawmakers impressed with how Morrison Child & Family Services provides the youth with decent hygiene, health care and education. That was is in sharp contrast with what Wyden, Merkley and others have witnessed down south.

As for the pregnant woman whom Wyden assisted at the border, the senator’s staff on Tuesday told The Register-Guard, “The mother was examined by a medical professional and cleared to travel to her sponsor’s (her father’s) home where she can receive further care.”

That is welcome news.

Wyden said U.S. officials illegally had blocked the family’s opportunity to apply for asylum. Without Wyden and without Herbert, who knows what would have happened to the family.

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The Bulletin, July 29, on funding killed for disaster detection systems:

Gov. Kate Brown told reporters that the Legislature’s decision not to extend the state’s disaster detection systems was one of the “biggest disappointments” of this year’s session.

Brown wanted $12 million for early warning systems for wildfires and earthquakes. She put the money in her budget. The money was there in House Bill 5005. And then on June 25 it was zapped.

What happened?

Some sort of deal was hashed out in secret. The amendment that zeroed out the funding was anonymous. It passed out of a Ways and Means subcommittee without debate to explain why the funding was cut.

You shouldn’t be shocked. That’s the way a lot of Oregon government is done. Sure, many legislators say all the right things about transparency and accountability in government. But they don’t always walk the talk.

What’s interesting about this episode is that two of the state’s leading Democrats were on the subcommittee that killed the money — House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney. In other words, one of Brown’s biggest disappointments of the session happened right under the nose of the fellow leaders of her party.

Maybe they don’t talk to Brown about her priorities. Maybe they disagree. Maybe they made tough choices among several programs. Shouldn’t that debate be in the open so Oregonians can understand not only what their government is doing but how the decisions are made?

The wildfire detection system that got cut is called ALERTWildfire. It is a system of cameras operated in remote areas that enable firefighters and first responders to discover and monitor wildfires. It’s run by a consortium of universities, including the University of Oregon. The devastating Camp Fire of 2018 that killed more than 80 people in California provided more urgency to expand the system in Oregon. Some of the first cameras in Oregon were installed on Blue Mountain and Steens Mountain. But the program needs money to create a larger network. The anonymous person or persons behind the amendment killed the funding for this session.

ShakeAlert is a similar system of sensors designed to enable advance warning of earthquakes. It could give a public warning from just several seconds to a few minutes. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Oregon doesn’t have enough sensors for it to work. California and Washington have made more progress. As for the funding, the anonymous person or persons behind the amendment killed it, at least for the time being.

Oregon’s laws underscore that the public is entitled to know what the government is doing and how decisions are made. Instead, what the public gets is episode after episode of secrets deals in Salem.

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