TRANSPARENCY: Are you ready to rumble, Molalla?

“…full transparency in government can’t wait. James Madison had it right when he said, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Oregonian Editorial Board (full text below)

If I have one hero in government, it is our Attorney General John Kroger. I met him early in his campaign and he has never disappointed me since.

Last spring, he patiently sat in Salem at the opening Transparency in Government hearing and listened as citizen after citizen outlined frustrations with public information “sharing” and public meeting laws. Some of us were able to speak twice to the assembled panel which interacted with us and provided hope that there will be more transparent days ahead.

Kroger doesn’t just placate with “feel good” meetings. He installed a staff attorney to continue to collect our concerns and complaints. I have been amazed that Deputy AG Michael Kron has always responded to my submissions and promptly answered my questions and concerns.

That’s proactive government I can respect. Kroger’s campaign has followed through with recommendations to the legislature and I look forward to participating in the coming hearings.

In my past years of activism, I have seen the world divide into two camps: Camp Transparency is open, honest and seeks to inform everyone with concrete facts; Camp Hide Your Tracks tries to muffle opposition by hiding information and attempting to intimidate citizens from participation in public processes.

Camp Hide Your Tracks is rampant in the workings of the City of Molalla. When fake planner Potter is asked for public info the instant default fee is $80. The City’s records on past SDCs are non-existent, in violation of state reporting laws which require detailed accounting EVERY YEAR BY JANUARY 1. Where, oh where, did all those past years of SDC fees go? That’s a question that needs to be answered and I hope that higher government bodies are looking into it, as promised.

In situations like the recent motocross mess, it was clear that the Camp Hide Your Tracks MX promoters hoped to prevail by using intimidation to suppress opposition. That’s a tactic Camp Hide Your Tracks members are always fond of: when there are clearly abusive activities going on, their method is to try to up the abuse and to try to divide and conquer by reducing participation in public processes. Sorry, but that’s not working these days in our neck of the woods. Most Oregonians I have met, especially those protecting peace, quiet and privacy, will get scrappy to protect themselves and their neighbors. It’s amazing what a common threat can do to unite diverse forces to speak as one.

I’d never give up my rights to express my opinions. I’d never give up my right to stand beside my neighbors to protect their families from abuses, whether it be idiotic land use proposals a la plannin’ Potter, fascist foreign fossil fuel pipelines, overblown school building bonds or nasty MX pseudo-“parks”.Those “campaigns” have all attempted to control the message, to control the flow of information, and to dim down opposition via intimidation tactics – and so far, they have all failed miserably because once the facts are blown out to the public, Oregonians are  smart enough to know when they being conned.

You don’t need a fancy title or to be elected to a thing to know that sleazy pipeline land agents aren’t your “friends”; you don’t have to be a land use expert to sit in a “hearing” and know that land speculators are attempting to control the message when opposition testimony is rudely cut off; you don’t have to be an accountant or an environmental expert to understand the basics about surplus building capacity in our shrinking school district; and you certainly don’t have to be living right next to a noisy motocross track to understand that it would be a terrible nuisance – and that if it were allowed anywhere in YOUR COUNTY it might end up next to YOU next time.

Earth to all those Camp Hide Your Tracks: We’re not that dumb and we’re not going to take it!

It’s heartening to talk to people – strangers – and realize that they are following these local issues and that they really appreciate anyone who is working to provide FACTS. That’s all anyone is  looking for: easy access to facts and the ability to be heard, whatever their opinion. Kroger gets that in spades!

Kroger’s Transparency in Government campaign is just a reinforcement of what is abundantly clear: you get the government and the land use decisions that you work for. If you fail to dig for the facts and you fail to instill a sense of entitlement in everyone so they understand their rights to fight for their quality of life then you have no excuse – you get the oppression you deserve.

I’ll keep digging and testifying and blogging and letter writing no matter what insults and threats are thrown in my path. Those Camp Hide Your Tracks clubs will keep working to oppress and intimidate us and we can’t let those troops win. Our quality of life is at a serious cross roads – bankruptcy looms and chaos threatens to reign on many fronts. Get the facts, stand up for causes you believe in, show up when you are needed: every voice counts!

I can hardly wait for the first legislative hearings on Transparency and will be one of the first in line to sign the testimony list. We ARE the government – we OWN the government and the agencies it funds. Don’t take NO for an answer when you want FACTS.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!

John Kroger says agencies must act faster, charge less for public record requests

Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2011, 9:21 PM     Updated: Thursday, January 20, 2011, 11:29 AM
Harry Esteve, The Oregonian By Harry Esteve, The Oregonian
kroger2.JPGDoug Beghtel/The OregonianOregon Attorney General John Kroger is proposing sweeping changes to the state public records law.

The most extensive rewrite of Oregon’s public records law in decades is in the works, instigated by Attorney General John Kroger.

Kroger has proposed legislation that would force public agencies to respond to requests for documents more quickly and would place new limits on how much agencies could charge for releasing the records. He also proposes eliminating more than 100 exemptions.

“We are setting real deadlines that government has to comply with for public records requests,” Kroger told The Oregonian on Wednesday. He said he decided the state’s nearly 40-year-old law needed to be reformed after hearing about long delays and daunting charges for records. “We are making sure government is responding rapidly.”

Kroger’s “transparency initiative” would require public bodies to acknowledge receipt of a request within two business days. The agency would have 10 working days to meet the request or claim an exemption.

As for fees, Kroger proposes that public agencies may charge no more than three times the state minimum wage, or actual cost of staff time, whichever is less. Agencies could charge the full cost of attorney fees, however.

The proposals, which now go to the Legislature, stem from growing concerns among news organizations, watchdog groups and others that obtaining documents and other material from Oregon public agencies was becoming increasingly difficult and expensive.

“I totally commend the attorney general for moving forward with establishing some clear guidelines, making sure public records are more available to citizens of Oregon,” said Jon Bartholomew, a lobbyist for the consumer advocate group OSPIRG.

Bartholomew noted that his group has made a number of requests for public documents recently that were met with delays of up to two months and higher-than-expected charges to obtain the information. Those kinds of barriers are often too difficult for members of the general public to overcome, he said.

OSPIRG is pushing for more agencies to post their information online, where it is free and accessible to anyone with a computer and internet access.

Efforts to loosen the state’s open records laws have had limited success in recent years. Instead, lawmakers have tended to vote the other way, adding new ways to prevent records from being released, often out of privacy concerns.

Kroger said the number of exemptions in Oregon’s public records law has jumped from 55 to more than 400 since the law was first passed.

“That represents an erosion of government transparency,” he said.

His proposed changes come after he ordered a review of the state’s sunshine laws and held a series of public hearings.

“Some of these changes represent a significant change in how the government does business,” Kroger said.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he recently met with Kroger to get a “30,000-foot briefing” about the proposals. Prozanski said he was not personally aware of problems with Oregon’s open records law but says his committee will definitely hold hearings.

“Until we have hearings and they bring issues forward, I won’t know what, if anything, we need to do,” Prozanski said.

Among the exemptions proposed for elimination:

Reports of waste, fraud and abuse made to the secretary of state, once the investigation is completed.

Records of the governor’s disability panel, which convenes when there are serious questions about the governor’s fitness for duty.

Personnel disciplinary materials for non-union management employees.

Investment-related records of the state treasurer and the Oregon Investment Council if they contain information about any benefit received by a state employee or state agency.

Harry Esteve

© 2011 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.

 

Getting public information without the wait and expense

Published: Friday, January 21, 2011, 9:22 AM     Updated: Friday, January 21, 2011, 11:08 AM
The Oregonian Editorial Board By The Oregonian Editorial Board
kroger.jpgView full sizeDoug Beghtel/The OregonianOregon Attorney General John Kroger

The struggle by any citizen to obtain information kept by any public agency in Oregon may soon get easier. Attorney General John Kroger this week proposed an overhaul to our nearly 40-year-old public records law, and if the Legislature obliges, every Oregonian will be better off for it.

The idea is simple — open government up by making the records it keeps truly available to the public. That means anyone asking for information should promptly get it as long as the privacy of individual citizens and some others is protected in a defined set of instances.

Living the idea may be more difficult, however — Oregon’s recent history has been to close up the government. Since enacting the public records law, the Legislature has approved hundreds of exemptions to it on behalf of businesses and agencies wishing to limit scrutiny. Public agencies at the municipal, county and state levels, meanwhile, have often stymied citizens with delays or exorbitant document preparation fees or both.

It is not possible, for example, to obtain the findings of a state investigation about reported public waste or fraud – you may be a citizen paying for the secretary of state‘s office to check it out, but you’re not allowed to know the results or how it arrived at them. Neither is it possible to access records of the Oregon Investment Council, which oversees the management of billions in public funds, if the requested record contains information about any benefit received by a state employee or agency.

Our favorite no-see-‘um rule actually predates the public records law but still applies: If you happen to be concerned about a shipping or boating accident, you’ll be blocked from learning about it because marine accident reports are confidential.

Make no mistake. Some exemptions, particularly those protecting certain classes of public servants from harassment or even violence, are legitimate.

But many do not promote the public’s good and should be scrapped. Worse, the exemptions — more than 400 of them — riddle our law books in such a way as to defy easy access and understanding by most Oregonians.

Kroger was clear about what needs to happen next.

Any public body receiving a request for information should respond within two days and comply within 10 days. Yes, the agency may request a brief extension of time to reply, but the idea is to be responsive and to quickly establish how and when the request will be fulfilled.

Fees would be contained. Public agencies could charge only three times the minimum wage or actual cost of staff time in fulfilling the request, whichever is less, and for the cost of materials used.

Significantly, more than 100 exemptions would be eliminated, consolidating the redundant and grouping those that remain into one of 10 legible categories — criminal investigations, proprietary business records, crime victims and whistle-blowers among them. The grouped exemptions would then be found all in one place under the law, easy to access and understand.

The Legislature has its moneyless hands quite full this season. But full transparency in government can’t wait. James Madison had it right when he said, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

We’re no prologue and have the tools at hand to keep it that way. Kroger has taken a superb first big step toward restoring transparency in government and confidence in the way the public’s business is conducted.

His proposals, structural and basic now yet open to refinement in subsequent legislative sessions, should be made into law this year.

© 2011 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.

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