WCOG Shares Access Advice, Awards With Oregon.

WCOG Shares Access Advice, Awards With Oregon

WCOG has recently reached across the river to encourage and assist with open government issues in neighboring Oregon.

The Coalition recognized The Malheur Enterprise, in Malheur, Oregon, with a Key Award for its persistence in seeking public records and reporting on a prominent crime.

Also, WCOG president Toby Nixon gave testimony for Oregon Senate Bill 2101, which created a Sunshine Committee similar to the Washington Public Records Exemption Accountability Committee, to review and assess Oregon’s 550 exemptions to its Public Records Act.

WCOG provided background information about Washington’s Sunshine Committee and the Coalition’s mission at the request of the Oregon Territory Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, which promoted SB 2101. Like Washington’s Public Records Act, the transparency promoted by the Oregon law has been limited by hundreds of new exemptions since its adoption in 1973.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Huffman R-The Dalles, passed both legislative houses by large margins and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown on Aug. 8, 2016. It creates a Sunshine Committee comprised of government officials and representatives, journalists and members of the public to review the hundreds of existing exemptions and recommend to the legislature whether they should be updated, narrowed or eliminated.

In his testimony, Nixon noted, “It was not the purpose of the committee to repeal exemptions. The purpose was to increase public confidence in the law and in government by ensuring that all exemptions have been thoroughly reviewed by all stakeholders and that no unnecessary exemptions had been adopted.”

Nixon also noted that Washington might do well to consider one of the provisions in the Oregon legislation, an Open Government Impact Statement that requires assessment of a bill’s impact on public access in the bill’s analysis.

“You were a great help in creating something that should bring about better public policy in Oregon,” Nick Budnick, the SPJ chapter’s former sunshine chair, who worked on the legislation, told Nixon in a note of thanks.

Presenting a Key Award outside of Washington was unusual, but the WCOG board chose to recognize The Malheur Enterprise for its work partly because our neighbor does not have a similar organization that recognizes open government efforts.

Les Zaitz (courtesy of Malheur Enterprise)

The Malheur Enterprise editor, Les Zaitz, accepted the award on behalf of the newspaper, which was sued by a state agency for requesting public records relating to a psychiatric patient. The patient killed three people after his release.

However, when The Enterprise’s public records request was rejected and the newspaper appealed to the state attorney general, the AG sided with the newspaper – and the original agency sued the newspaper.

Eventually, the newspaper obtained the records, and its persistence was recognized by WCOG.

“This case was so extraordinary because the newspaper was sued by a state agency for simply requesting information the public had a right to know,” said Juli Bunting, WCOG communications consultant. “The board wanted to draw attention to this egregious case and honor the newspaper for standing up to secrecy.”

Return to the September 2017 Newsletter