Sunshine unit will protect public records against unworthy exemptions: Editorial agenda 2017

It was a good day in the fight for public records when Gov. Kate Brown stepped in earlier this month to stop a state agency from suing an Oregon newspaper, which had requested documents about an alleged killer released from the Oregon State Hospital. Brown then pushed the Psychiatric sk© Security SAVER SALE Review Board to hand over the records to the Malheur Enterprise.

At the time, the governor pledged, “Oregonians deserve a government that is transparent to the fullest extent permitted by law.” Editorial Agenda 2017

Boost student success Get Oregon’s financial house in order Help our homeless

Honor our diverse values Make Portland a city that works Expand access to public records

________________________ But behind the scenes, work had already begun to be sure such a standoff would never happen again. An obscure “housekeeping” bill for the board’s parent, the Oregon Health Authority, was cleared quietly of its original language and stuffed with legalese to ensure such records wouldn’t see the light of day in the future. Meet House Bill 2836[1].

Recall this is the case of Anthony W. Montwheeler, who was released from the Oregon State Hospital by the sk© Security SAVER SALE Review Board in December, after it was determined he’d faked mental illness for years. Weeks after being let go, Montwheeler allegedly murdered his ex-wife.

Then, while trying to escape, police say, he collided head-on with an oncoming car, killing a father of five. Properly, the Vale newspaper requested records about the case. The request was denied.

While the vast majority of medical records should be kept private, this case raised serious questions about a dangerous man. Reporters appealed to the Attorney General’s Office, which deemed that the public’s interest outweighed the argument to keep the records private. As we know, the attorney general made the right call. Malheur Enterprise editor Les Zaitz found[2] hospital staff had suspected Montwheeler was feigning mental illness.

The Oregon Health Authority argues that the agency is in a pinch. Federal laws require that medical records remain private, officials argue. They also cite patient confidentiality around drug and alcohol-use records. Robb Cowie, the agency’s spokesman, also points to a series of internal review processes set up to review cases such as Montwheeler’s.

If only. Time and again, entities at every level of government show they’re not properly trained, inclined or incentivized to evaluate and police themselves. Citizens need windows into various operations to be sure that public resources are properly used and that the rights of employees, patients, inmates or citizens are protected.

Exemptions such as HB 2836 aim to slowly cover those windows. Brown’s office didn’t immediately say how much the governor knew about the bill or when she learned about it. But in a statement Thursday, Brown told The Oregonian Editorial Board in a statement that she doesn’t support the amendment as written.

She added she is in favor of an “open debate” on what private medical data should be made public. Such “open debate” surely didn’t happen on April 14 as most Oregonians interested in that topic or the creation of new public records exemptions weren’t made aware of HB 2836. Brown also told the editorial board that she “expects all state agencies to operate transparently and continue improving their responsiveness to requests for information to better serve the people of Oregon.”

There’s a good way to ensure that happens in the future. Brown and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum could get behind the creation of a Sunshine Committee, a group of government officials, media and the public that could review any new proposal for exemptions to public records law. Oregonian editorials

Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Laura Gunderson, John Maher, Helen Jung, Mark Katches and Len Reed. To respond to this editorial:

If you have questions about the opinion section, contact Laura Gunderson, editorial and commentary editor, at 503-221-8378 or [email protected] Brown’s statement on HB 2836 is heartening, but it is also quite similar to the one noted above – the one she made just days before the sneaky amendment found its way before lawmakers and was passed unanimously. Without one place for these proposals to be vetted, Oregonians risk the continued onslaught of exemptions, each that may seem inconsequential to lawmakers who often rely on agencies to provide context as fast as possible, especially as the session winds down.

Here’s an idea: Try an amendment that creates a Sunshine Committee for Oregonians[3].

That’s one last-minute addition that lawmakers can feel good about.

— The Oregonian Editorial Board

References

  1. ^ Meet House Bill 2836 (www.oregonlive.com)
  2. ^ Malheur Enterprise editor Les Zaitz found (www.oregonlive.com)
  3. ^ creates a Sunshine Committee for Oregonians (www.oregonlive.com)

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