Secrecy from Salem

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board April 12, 2013 08:33 am

The terms “public record” and “public meeting” sound pretty straightforward.

And they should be.

Except that some members of the Oregon Legislature think the public — which is to say, all of us — have too much access to information about what our government is doing.

Oregon’s laws regarding public records and laws are decent, by American standards.

Yet the list of reasons why members of the public can be kept out of a public meeting, or denied access to a public record, takes up several pages.

The more pressing problem, though, is that certain lawmakers seem more inclined to make that list longer rather than shorter, as it should be.

Most of these legislative efforts fail, fortunately.

Yet even some of these bother us because an idea that gets far enough to be introduced as a bill could eventually become law.

Senate Bill 369, for instance, which is part of the 2013 Legislative session.

The bill would in effect overturn former Attorney General John Kroger’s decision that public employees’ retirement benefits are public records.

Its sponsor, Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, told The Oregonian this winter that the bill wasn’t supposed to be introduced this year, and that he would assign it to a committee where it would languish.

Which is what happened.

But we’d be more confident in the Legislature’s commitment to open government if lawmakers had instead formally withdrawn the bill, which at least would have required senators to denounce the idea on record.

Another current bill, Senate Bill 86, clarifies that elected officials who exchange emails would not be conducting a public meeting, which means the public would not have to be notified about the exchanges.

This amounts to an invitation to officials to conduct business by way of emails.

The news from Salem is not wholly negative, though, as regards public access to government activity.

Senate Bill 634 would delete only one of those dozens of reasons for restricting the public’s access, but it’s a pretty big one.

Under current law, city councils and other groups of elected officials can meet in private (what’s known as an “executive session”) to discuss certain matters, one of those being to meet with people who are assigned to negotiate contracts with unions representing public employees.

This is obviously a critical issue, as labor costs account for more than half of the dollars most public agencies spend.

Yet not only can elected officials discuss labor negotiations in executive sessions, but that’s one of just two topics from which media members, who normally are allowed to attend executive sessions to gain valuable background for reporting, can also be excluded.

Senate Bill 634 would require elected officials to discuss labor negotiations in meetings open to the public.

The other situation in which the public and the media can be excluded from a meeting is an executive session dealing with the expulsion of a student from a public school, or with a student’s medical records.

The privacy factor in those cases is obvious.

But there’s no comparison between students’ records, and contract talks with unions.

Senate Bill 634 should become law, and Senate Bills 86 and 369 should be scrapped. 

If those things happen, then the current legislative session will be a victory for the public.