The calculated disrespect for open government demonstrated by the Oregon’s attorney general in response to a simple information request filed by the Freedom Foundation last year was so egregious it prompted even the reliably liberal Oregonian to publish an editorial this week essentially calling for her removal from office.
Headlined, “How state officials, with guidance from the Department of Justice, kneecapped a public information request,” the op-ed savages Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and concludes with two suggestions: “First,” it says, “Oregon needs to update not only its public-records laws, but also its government culture. Second, Rosenblum, who’s up for election next year, really needs a first-rate opponent.”
The rest of the editorial describes what happened when Freedom Foundation Oregon Director Anne Marie Gurney tried to obtain the names addresses of those being paid by the state to provide home-based healthcare or childcare.
As the authors explain, last November, just minutes after the Freedom Foundation filed a public records request for state workers’ contact information, Gene Evans, the Public Records officer at Oregon’s Department of Human Services, called the Attorney General’s Office and began a process of amending the public records law to make sure we didn’t get what we wanted.
And it worked, too, as Oregon lawmakers quickly responded by adopting legislation carefully crafted to exempt exactly what the Freedom Foundation asked for from public disclosure laws.
One day after the law was passed, Evans sent the Freedom Foundation an email reply. He crowed, “Because of the enactment of HB 3037 and the fact that the information you have requested is exempt from disclosure under HB 3037, we have no responsive records to provide to you.”
The Freedom Foundation — like most people would — took Evans at his word when he told us he was working to fill our request and never suspected he was working behind our back with the Attorney General’s office and lobbying the Legislature to block our request.
But that should give you some idea about the level of entrenched corruption and arrogance with which we have to contend in Oregon.
At the time we requested the information, even Evans conceded it was clearly a matter of public record that should have been easily provided. But in the wake of the Legislature’s betrayal, Oregon has adopted a new standard for transparency: In short, “public information” refers only to what the state wants to disclose. Everything else is off limits – even if the laws that say so have to be passed in haphazard style and applied retroactively.
The Freedom Foundation wants the addresses of in-home healthcare and daycare workers so we can send them information about their new constitutional rights under Harris v. Quinn – the U.S. Supreme Court decision that gives this group of quasi-state workers the option to leave the union if they choose.
When informed of this option, at least half of the workers will leave the union — a fact Evans and the government unions know only too well, which is why they went to great lengths to make sure it couldn’t happen.
Oregon’s once-potent public records laws have been weakened over time. More than 400 exemptions have been carved out to protect the secrecy of the Left’s favorite special interest groups. These folks are allowed to leverage government to their benefit without the public knowing what’s really happening.
In addition to the enormous pile of exemptions, the Legislature has empowered the bureaucracy to determine the cost of records and the time needed to produce them – which makes the process even more cumbersome and expensive.
Rosenblum herself convened a task force this past fall ostensibly to address much-needed reforms to Oregon’s public records laws. But despite her lofty rhetoric, the panel includes only two token conservative voices. Moreover, its members aren’t expected to turn in a report until after the next legislative session has concluded. Whatever the task force’s stated goal might be, in practice it simply provides political cover for another year while Rosenblum runs for re-election.
The Freedom Foundation is advocating for the following reforms to Oregon’s records laws:
- Reduce the number of exemptions.
- Reduce the cost of obtaining records.
- Define the time allowed to produce records.
- Create penalties if government breaks the law.
Sadly, the Freedom Foundation will now have to sue to obtain the records we seek. We will almost certainly prevail, but these types of costs would prohibit most private citizens from obtaining record.
Which is just the way those who fear transparency want it.