Today marks the start of Sunshine Week — the annual celebration of the idea, so central to our democracy, that government works best when it operates in full public view. I'm going to mark the occasion this year by doing something I need to do more frequently.
I'm going to request a set of public records about a topic that recently has caught my interest. I can't say for sure if the records I'm going to request will lead to an editorial or a news story. But they might.
I suspect the branch of government I'm going to contact about these documents won't be delighted when it receives my request.
Somehow, I think, I'll still be able to sleep at night.
Sunshine Week provides a good opportunity to review the history of public records and open governmental meetings in Oregon, and to discuss again why these are important. And, although recent developments in terms of transparency in state government have been encouraging, the picture is a little bleaker when you consider the last half-century or so.
In the 1970s, Oregon overhauled its public meeting and open government laws to the point where they were among the nation's very best in terms of transparency.
But that was then. In the decades that have followed, the sunshine has dimmed bit by bit as lawmakers have exempted different sets of records from public view. We're at the point now where more than 500 exceptions have been scattered throughout Oregon statutes. To be sure, some of those exceptions are justifiable. But many are not.
Efforts now are underway to identify and review those exceptions, but it will take years to see how that work pans out. Other recent legislation has aimed to clarify how government entities must handle requests for records, and that's a good step forward, but sore spots (such as the costs that government agencies can charge citizens for those records) still need to be worked out.
In the meantime, it's important to remember that the right to access records, the right to observe government meetings, are not just the province of journalists: These are rights that are enjoyed by every citizen of Oregon. You have the right to watch your government in action. You have the right to access government records. After all, this is your money at work.
To that end, over the next few months, the Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times are launching a project in which we'll request salary information for every employee of every major governmental entity in the mid-valley. As we receive the information, our intention is to post it online in a format that can be easily accessed. We'll break out interesting parts of what we find for occasional reports in our printed editions (our goal here is to come up with a series of stories in the spirit of Parade Magazine's "What People Earn" annual issue).
Our intent is not to single out any particular employee or group of employees. But salaries make up the bulk of the budget for every governmental entity. Taxpayers deserve to know what these public servants are earning. We'll roll out these stories, in print and online, throughout the next few months.
If you were watching the Academy Awards with last Sunday's column at hand, you know that I had a pretty good year for Oscar predictions, with a 20-for-24 mark. I missed on best picture, which went to "The Shape of Water" instead of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and stumbled on the documentary Oscar, which went to "Icarus" instead of "Faces Places." I should have known better in both of those. I also missed in the documentary short category, which went to "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405," and live-action short, which went to "The Silent Child," but who really knows about those categories?
One reader took me up on my Oscar challenge and emailed me picks an hour or so before the ceremony started. And wouldn't you know it: The reader (who hasn't yet given me a full name) beat me, with a remarkable 21-3 mark, missing only on the two short categories I missed and on best song. I owe that reader a $25 gift certificate to a mid-valley movie theater.
Ratings for the Oscar telecast hit a record low, with just 26.5 million viewers. I know how to fix that, though: The Academy should just announce now that "Black Panther" will win 17 Oscars at next year's ceremony. The trend is clear: When a blockbuster is favored to win big on Oscar night, blockbuster crowds tune in. (mm)