Oregonians need open records to get information we should know

Editor’s note: March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, coinciding with Founding Father James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day on March 16. If you’re not a journalist or someone active in public affairs, you may not give much thought to the importance of open records and open meetings to you, a citizen of Oregon. Here’s a reminder for why all of us should care.

Guest commentary by Shasta Kearns Moore
Even in this era of disinformation campaigns and viral memes, Oregonians are nearly unanimous in their desire to have true and accurate information about our government.
It makes sense. In a democracy, the people command the process, not the other way around. But too often it doesn’t feel like that.
Our government makes us jump through hoops to start a business, to get help paying for baby formula, to register our car. We comply, in part, because there’s a certain amount of trust in the process. We trust that we have to do these things for the greater public good.
Occasionally, the tables are turned and government agencies have to jump through a hoop or two for us. In return for our money and trust, they need to make public announcements, conduct meetings in public and provide public records.
Most of the time, they do that so well that it’s boring. But when they don’t, we Oregonians notice. And we don’t like it.
In 2015, Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned after First Lady Cylvia Hayes was accused of influence-peddling. When journalists asked for records to check her use of public time, money and resources, the governor tried to stop their release.
So when Gov. Kate Brown was sworn in, she vowed to make transparency a top priority. In 2017, the first legislative session after the scandal, the legislature passed the state’s most comprehensive public records law reform since the Nixon era.
A key component was the creation of the Office of the Oregon Public Records Advocate – a professional who would offer open government training, guidance and mediation across the state.
Optimism was high. But it was short-lived.
In September of last year, the advocate announced she was resigning over the pressure she felt to put Gov. Brown’s interests above the public interest. A bill to make sure that doesn’t happen again was working its way through the legislature this year, but we will have to wait at least another year before gaining that certainty.
I happened to be in Salem the day Ginger McCall packed up her things and left the Office of the Oregon Public Records Advocate for the last time. A celebrated attorney who had worked on both sides of Freedom of Information Act requests, the new position had seemed to her a perfect way to do important work while settling down to raise a family.
But over drinks that October evening, we could only talk about what might have been. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if McCall had not suffered personal tragedy. Perhaps she would have been more willing to put up with being pushed around.
But in March 2019 her beautiful baby girl died suddenly from meningitis. Political pressure – and the risk to one’s personal career for speaking up – doesn’t feel very important after something like that.
Indeed, political machinations don’t feel very important to most Oregonians. Most people don’t care about public records law – but they care about the results of it. Oregonians care about their babies. They cared when unsafe day care facilities operated with impunity – until their records were made public.
Oregonians also care about other people’s babies. They cared when foster care programs were putting children in hotel rooms or in out-of-state facilities with poor performance records – until those records were made public.
Oregonians care about school children. They cared when their school plumbing could have been making kids sick, or when teachers identified by their coworkers as abusive were still allowed to work – until those records were made public.
Oregonians care about people of color. They cared that some police officers found excuses to arrest and intimidate people who were not a threat – until those records were made public.
Oregonians care about their pets. They cared that veterinary clinic complaints were hidden away – until those records were made public.
Oregonians care about their food. They cared when grocery stores or restaurants had been quietly violating public safety standards – until those records were made public.
Oregonians care about the thousands of dollars in tax money they send to Salem every year. They care when it’s not spent wisely – until those records are made public.
Oregonians care about what’s happening in their community, even things as seemingly insignificant as being able to determine who is ticketed or arrested by law enforcement for petty crimes.
Oregonians care about true and accurate information about their government.
During this election year’s Sunshine Week, it’s more important than ever to demand anyone asking for your vote to commit to transparency.

– Shasta Kearns Moore is a freelance journalist. She leads Open Oregon, a nonprofit dedicated to educating Oregonians about their rights to public meetings and public records, online at open-oregon.com. Open Oregon is a chapter of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which sponsors Sunshine Week each year. More info at sunshineweek.org.