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On Death and Campaign Finance

Oregon State Seal. Photo: Janet Lackey/Flickr

Tracking money in state politics is good. That seems to be the one thing everybody in Oregon can agree on when it comes to campaign finance. Even opponents of campaign finance reform proudly tout how ORESTAR, Oregon’s public-facing campaign finance database, tracks everything. Who needs reform, they say, in a state where the money is transparent?

Except there’s one thing ORESTAR doesn’t track, we now know: pro bono actors who insert themselves into state politics but fail to leave fingerprints.

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For all we know, there are lots of them. The volunteer most publicly in view at the moment is Patricia McCaig — former Gov. Kitzhaber’s campaign advisor — who failed to disclose her role in Kitzhaber’s 2014 re-election campaign until the media called her on it. Then-Secretary of State Kate Brown’s Elections Division, in examining whether McCaig legally donated her time to the campaign, found it was all perfectly legal.

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Fiasco in Wasco: Citizen ponies up $50K to open government

Credit: Brent Payne/Flickr

The tab will come to something like $50,000. So John “Chip” Wood sold a rental property to foot the bill. On the ticket? A lawsuit against Wasco County and its three commissioners for violations of the Oregon Public Meetings Law. It’s a story that begins in a Burgerville and ends, for now, with a protective order. Along the way it highlights all the reasons why transparency reform is failing in Oregon.

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To hear it from Wood, the issue is this: the Wasco County Commission doesn’t play by the rules. While Oregon Public Meetings Law bars them from meeting without public notice, or deliberating on the phone or in electronic communications outside of public meetings, it hasn’t kept commissioners from making decisions over lunch, over email, and without a heads up to the public.

That part isn’t a secret. In November, the Wasco County Commission voted to remove the county from a regional public health district that’s responsible for the administration of public health laws. In other words: immunization, STD tracking, restaurant inspections, and monitoring and containing infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis, among other stuff that gets people sick or keeps people from getting sick.

The commission acted without public notice or deliberation. They simply took up this item, even though it was not on the agenda, and voted on it without any interaction with the public. The move took the community by such surprise that it provoked an outcry that caused Wood to file the lawsuit.

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A Vision for Transparency Reform in Oregon

In my household there is a running gag. It’s that my future biography — to be written by my husband, who I have been talking at for a minimum of two hours a day for many years — will be called Visions.

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It will not be about all of the things I have accomplished. It will be a list, likely numbering in the hundreds of pages, of all the great ideas I’ve had but for a variety of reasons did not see through.

There will be the numerous companies I have started (in my mind, anyway). The ever-evolving landscaping plan always in progress in my yard (and, again, in my mind). There will be the dozens of art projects floating around in closets and our basement. Thousands of unwritten articles — a few with asterisks denoting the unavoidable legal causes of their demise. A book or five. Nonprofits, animal rescues, orchid arrangements, volunteer projects.

I am not a procrastinator. I simply like to start things. Like this column. Like the Redacted app. Like a TED Talk-style story rollout at InvestigateWest’s Oregon launch party Thursday night (6 p.m. in Portland at Ecotrust).

And now I’m going to start something with you people: We are going to try to get this darn bill passed.

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Hurry up and wait: Kate Brown's transparency plan

Governor Kate Brown meeting the Oregon press corps in February. Photo: Flickr

By now you’ve heard the news: our newly minted Gov. Kate Brown is cracking down. She’s pro-transparency. And she’s asking the Legislature for an audit of state agencies’ compliance with public records law.

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In her rollout of transparency reforms, Brown proposed this and two other bills. One tethers the spouses of the governor to state ethics rules. The other strengthens the powers of the Oregon Ethics Commission by dragging it out from under the governor’s thumb, among other things.

If you’ve followed state politics for the last month or more, then none of this is a surprise. Brown’s plans are a response to issues highlighted by John Kitzhaber’s resignation on the eve of the state’s 156th birthday, problems Brown promised to solve against a backdrop of banners and frosted sheet cake.

In announcing her solutions in a press release March 11, Brown’s own record on transparency in the governor’s office reads like those Krispy Kreme promos that turn PR numerics into news: Brown has closed 12 of the 34 public records requests received so far as governor, and 5 of the 108 still pending from the Kitzhaber administration.

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The Data Test: Circa 1987

In 1987, a gallon of gas cost 89 cents. Michael Jackson’s Bad album was at the top of the charts. Fox Broadcasting made its primetime TV debut. And the big moves in technology included the advent of the disposable contact lens and the first criminal conviction using DNA.

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It was a big year in computers, too. That’s because that same year a young Bill Gates appeared, in dark-rimmed glasses and tie, to roll out Microsoft Excel in front of a crowded room and cameras. This rollout is now so ancient by technology standards that the History Channel carries the relic in its Invention of the PC series. And what makes this bit of trivia relevant to Redacted this month is that 1987 was also the year of the Kenney letter.

Never heard of it? Me neither.

Not until a few weeks ago, anyway, when, in a dustup over access to data at Oregon Housing and Community Services, I realized that this 28-year-old letter underpins our access to open data in Oregon.

Like a lot in Oregon Public Records Law, it’s a bit of a rabbit hole. But the gist is this: Oregon law guarantees access to machine readable or electronic data, if available, under ORS 192.440(3)[1]. That means if you’ve got something in a database, and someone asks for it that way, or in the raw, you have to give it over.

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Smart phones clash with 20th Century courthouse rule

Every court is its own dominion. And the Clackamas County Circuit Court is unique, so far as I can tell, in its prickliness about technology.

Redacted.The court’s biggest recent flap involved a reporter who took a cell phone photo of a defendant on the witness stand. The phone was confiscated as unauthorized and court staff feared a crime victim was caught in the shot. But the move that has me head-scratching is a new sign in the records room. This one bans cell phone photos of documents, as well as electronic scanners or apps.

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It’s been a while since I found myself in this room full of rolling file cabinets and manila folders. But I recently noticed the sign hanging over the public reading area, pointedly banning the use of cell phone cameras or electronic scanners to copy records. I’d offer a photograph if I could have taken one, but you see my dilemma: that would be illegal.

If you haven’t been in this room before — a photograph sure would be helpful — then you might not know that it doesn’t contain anything sensitive. No grand jury notes in here. On offer instead is the standard day-to-day fare of the courts: procedural documents from divorce decrees and name changes, civil cases and arrest records, to the not-so-occasional eviction or foreclosure.

These same records will very soon be available online through eCourt. So when I learned that the Clackamas County Court doesn’t want people taking pictures or scans of them, the question I really wanted to ask was: Why?

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A web app that tracks exemptions to Oregon Public Records Law? Yes. We just made that.

If you are on this email list, then by now you know it’s been redacted. Not so much inked over as scrubbed from view. Curtained. Exempt, as they say, from disclosure.

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Up until January of last year, it was a public record, compiled as part of formerRedacted. Attorney General John Kroger’s perhaps naive effort at transparency reform in Oregon. For a couple of glorious years, this list united like minds in the mission to daylight the beaver state. As we all now know, that undertaking evaporated. Ironically, this email list nearly also disappeared when Rep. Dennis Richardson’s run at publicly available emails earned email lists an exemption to Oregon Public Records Law in 2013.[1]

Just another blow to a once-lauded Sunshine Law that is now dying its death of a thousand cuts. We’re already nearly halfway there.

At last count there were 478 exemptions to the law. That is not the news. What is the news is that, in the spirit of the transparency reform that brought us all to this list in the first place, InvestigateWest has put those exemptions in one place: Redacted, a searchable web app of OPRL exemptions.

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