The news is troubling for anyone concerned about the transparency and openness of Oregon state government: Gov. Kate Brown is considering new limits on what state employee information can be released to the public — and may end up proposing legislation to that end to the 2019 Legislature.
A story last week in The Oregonian reported the development, and added a detail that was equally troubling: The state's administrative services director, Katy Coba, has ordered state agencies to notify and coordinate with the governor's public records lawyer before they respond to a records request for a large dataset about any individual who provides information to the state.
Brown pledged that one of the hallmarks of her tenure as governor would be an unflagging commitment to transparency, but her record on the issue has been spotty — meaningful steps forward often have been followed by real steps back. Depending on what happens next with these initiatives, this could represent an additional backward slide.
According to Ted Sickinger's story, Brown's chief of staff, Nik Blosser, said that the idea to consider new limits came after the state released a database of state employee salaries to The Oregonian. The data released included names, titles, salaries, the months and years of employees' births and information about gender and race.
The newspaper said its purpose was to allow the public to compare the pay of various public employees in each state agency. It said it has no intention of including personal identifiers in its online database. The information about gender, race and age groups is to be used to analyze pay equity among those groups.
All those are valid areas of public interest. In fact, you can argue that a very similar database, one showing the payments to participants in Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System, helped kick-start the debate over how best to reform the state's troubled public pension system. (It's worth remembering that the state released the pension information only after years of being hounded by The Oregonian and the Salem Statesman-Journal.)
To be fair, members of Brown's staff say they will convene a work group to analyze any new limitations, and that the group will include the state's new public records advocate and one journalist. Any proposal also would be vetted by the state's Sunshine Committee, a panel of lawmakers, members of the media and the public formed to review requests for new public records exemptions. The work group may end up not making a recommendation at all, which would be fine.
The timing of the effort is suspicious, coming as it does after the state's efforts to block the anti-union Freedom Foundation from obtaining the names and addresses of home health-care workers. After a 2014 Supreme Court opinion allowed those workers to opt out of paying union dues, the foundation sought that information so that it could send mailers to those workers. The state delayed the request until the Legislature passed a law exempting the information from public release.
If that union-dues issue sounds familiar, it's because it was at the heart of last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which ruled that public-union workers who choose not to join unions don't have to pay "fair-share" fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining. The ruling is a big hit to public-employee unions.
It's no secret that those unions are among the governor's biggest supporters; in fact, she issued a statement last week after the Janus ruling saying that she stood by unions.
Fair enough. But does that pro-union stance include a willingness to weaken the state's public records laws in what could be an attempt to protect the interests of those unions? And what can we expect now that requests for big datasets are being funneled directly to the governor's public-records lawyer? As the 2018 campaign for governor starts to heat up, these are questions that Brown needs to answer. (mm)