When state Sen. Sara Gelser was working on her legislation to reform operations at the Department of Human Services, one surprise was the difficulty she had in accessing certain state records.
I am proud to say that when Gelser told me this during an interview before the start of this year’s legislative session, I resisted the temptation to say something like, “I told you so.”
I recount this story today as we mark the start of Sunshine Week, the national effort to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. This is the 11th national Sunshine Week, although the effort began in 2002 in Florida. (The week is scheduled each year to coincide with the March 16 birth of James Madison, who believed in the importance of transparency in government.)
If Gelser, a prominent legislator, runs into problems accessing state records, you can be sure that private citizens or representatives of the news media face the same issues.
Oregon used to stand among the nation’s leaders for open records and public meetings. But, year after year, that reputation has dimmed as the Legislature has added hundreds of exceptions, each exception removing from public view another set of records. And some governmental entities around Oregon have made it more difficult for citizens to access records by charging unreasonable (and, in some cases, indefensible) fees.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has a task force working to assess the state of Oregon’s public record laws; the group is scheduled to make recommendations to the Legislature. The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, during Sunshine Week, which seems appropriate.
The task force is working on identifying and cataloguing various exceptions to public records laws; the group’s most recent list includes 540 separate exceptions. If you believe that government functions best in the sunshine, think of each of those exceptions as a shutter on a window blocking the light. By this point, the light inside the house (or the Senate, or any other governmental body) is getting dim.
One of the first people I met after moving to the mid-valley a decade ago was Allen “Pete” Peters, the man who was known for many years in Corvallis as “Mr. G-T.” Pete worked for 30 years at the Gazette-Times, selling advertising and working his way up to the positions of ad director, general manager and assistant to the publisher before retiring in 1985. He died last week at the age of 87.
When I arrived here in late 2005, Pete and his wife, Jean, made a point of seeking me out to introduce me to Corvallis and to a bit of G-T history. He was always gracious and knowledgeable, but he was not the sort of person who would call me up each time the paper made some sort of mistake, even though during his G-T years, people would call him at all hours if they didn’t like something they read in the paper. (I know something about that role.)
Pete remained active during his retirement, discovering computers, photography and jewelry-making and continuing his volunteer work with a long list of community projects. He assisted with successful fundraising campaigns at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center and the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. (He was somewhat less successful as the Benton County contact for a campaign to raise money for Autzen Stadium at the University of Oregon, but that was a tough gig to begin with for the U of O journalism graduate.)
I always will remember his kindness to a G-T and mid-valley newcomer.
A memorial service for Pete is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at McHenry Funeral Home, followed by a celebration of life at the Corvallis Country Club.
A party for Paul
One last bit of news today regarding a former G-T employee: We’ll hold a public sendoff for longtime news editor Paul Davies, who retired last week after more than 40 years working for newspapers, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Block 15 (a former G-T location) in downtown Corvallis.