A selection of editorials from newspaper around the state of Oregon:

The Oregonian/OregonLive, March 11, on the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak:

In California, Massachusetts and Washington state, universities are canceling in-person classes and instead offering instruction to students online.

In New York, the governor has mandated a one-mile “containment zone” around the epicenter of that state’s COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

And in Oregon… state and county health officials are struggling over whether it’s OK to publicly disclose the gender of individual patients confirmed to have the virus.

This, apparently, is Oregon in the midst of a public health emergency.

Advertising

From the start, Oregon’s response has been one marked by half-measures and mixed messages. In some cases, such as the shortage of tests from the federal government for the virus, Oregon isn’t to blame. But in others, the state has been hampered by its confused approach and reflexive lack of transparency. All of which raises the question: Is this a public health emergency or not?

Let’s start with information. After all, the state doesn’t have a vaccine. It doesn’t have a cure. It doesn’t have a lot of answers about this new coronavirus. But it does have some information – the best tool for helping Oregonians understand the scope, risk and nature of this virus.

Unfortunately, it’s not sharing a whole lot, and certainly providing far less than other states which have disclosed patients’ ages, places they visited and even, in New York’s case, the public transportation line they took. While Oregon is providing the number of patients in each county and broad age ranges for those confirmed to have the virus, the information is so unspecific that it risks becoming meaningless.

In fact, in the first confirmed case in Oregon, it was school district personnel – not health officials – who alerted the public that the patient was an elementary school employee. While health officials did note that the patient had been at the school, the lack of detail reflects more of a concern for privacy of an individual than a recognition of the potential for public exposure. Such selective and parsimonious information does not engender trust or faith that public health leaders are being up front.

Oregon Health Authority spokesman Robb Cowie said the reasons stem from Justice Department advice to keep confidential such information. He said the agency’s interpretation of a statute calling for information obtained in the course of a public health investigation to be kept confidential. It’s an overly broad and absurd reading of what an “investigation” includes. But it’s also completely unjustified in the event of a public health emergency – especially when the lack of testing has undermined the ability to conduct a robust public health investigation in the first place.

County health officials, too, are worried about the potential identification of individuals by giving such information as gender and age range for confirmed cases in their counties. It’s not only a misplaced fear, it begs the question of who is in charge – the state or counties? This is either a public health emergency in which the state takes charge, or it’s not.

Advertising

And while health officials, on one hand, acknowledge that the virus is likely widespread, they aren’t taking any measures to advise the public to limit close contact with one another. Schools remain open, despite the reality that kids sneeze and cough on one another without practicing the best hygiene. The state hasn’t cautioned against large gatherings and is mostly targeting its messaging toward the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. While they are certainly more vulnerable, it’s a mistake to ignore the fact that young people can and are contracting the virus which they can easily carry to others who studiously follow the state’s advice.

When reliable sources provide information, it helps people both understand the risk and avoid complacency. A baseline of frequent, honest and transparent communication ensures that whatever steps the state must take in the future will be built on a level of trust from the public. But in the absence of information, people will seek it from whatever source is willing to fill the vacuum, reliable or not.

And in an emergency, that’s the worst possible outcome.

____

The Bulletin, March 9, on state legislature’s failed public records bill:

Many bills failed in the 2020 legislative session because Republican legislators walked out and Democrats decided that the cap -and -trade bill needed to move before other bills did.

Ask what bills should have passed, and you will get different answers. For instance, we have highlighted how Oregon State University-Cascades failed to receive money for a student success center. Deschutes County failed to get money for badly needed additional judges. And there are many more.

It’s perhaps no surprise that a bill that would better ensure the public has access to information from the government also failed. Sure, there are laws on the books regarding public records and open meetings. But time and time again those laws are interpreted in a way to rig the rules against the public.

The Legislature has made improvements. There are now timelines in place for how long a government entity is supposed to take before responding to a records request. But if the record that a member of the public is after is something that would make somebody or a program look bad, what do you think happens? Delays and high attorney fees for reviewing the records before release effectively build a wall around the records so the public can’t get access.

Advertising

The creation of the public records advocate position in Oregon was a very positive step. That office can mediate records disputes and provide free training to the public and government on how the law works.

But then Ginger McCall, the public records advocate, resigned. She said she was pressured by the members of the governor’s office to secretly represent the governor’s political interests on the state’s Public Records Advisory Council, “even to the point of undermining the Council’s proposals,” she wrote.

Senate Bill 1506 would have made it clear that the public records advocate was an independent office. It clarified that the advisory council could support or oppose legislation about the public records law, introduce public records legislation and recruit and appoint the public records advocate.

Those are important changes. They need to be made. The bill did not deserve to die. Bring it back next session.

____

The Mail Tribune, March 9, on the Republican walkout that ended Oregon’s short legislative session:

In the end, majority Democrats did the only thing they could be expected to do by ending the 2020 legislative session four days early, rejecting truant Republicans’ offer to return today to the Capitol to pass key spending bills before the final deadline.

Advertising

The good news is, it appears the Legislative Emergency Board will be able to salvage some of those key appropriations this week, with or without the participation of the minority party.

The bad news: Unless the state’s voters amend the Oregon Constitution to change the quorum requirement for the Legislature to do business from two-thirds of members to a simple majority, this may be the new normal for Oregon government. Any time the minority party — whichever party it happens to be — decides it doesn’t like a piece of legislation, all its members have to do is walk out and refuse to participate to get their way, regardless of the wishes of the majority of the state’s voters.

This walkout, first by Senate Republicans, then by their House colleagues, was over a cap-and-trade bill to address climate change and promote alternative sources of energy. We’re not interested in debating the pros and cons of that legislation again, except to say that majority Democrats made multiple changes in an attempt to address the concerns of rural Oregon. Last year, the first walkout was over a tax measure to increase funding for public schools. Next time, it could be something entirely different.

The real damage done by the walkout this time wasn’t the death of the cap-and-trade bill. It was the failure to pass a variety of spending measures, including a $45 million bill to open homeless shelters across the state without regard to zoning, planning and design rules. The measure, which was advancing with bipartisan support before the walkout, included $2.5 million for Medford.

Another bill would have given a $2 million grant to help Kid Time Children’s Museum prepare to move into the former Carnegie Library building in Medford.

A package of bills to address the state’s wildfire preparedness, which is tremendously important to this part of the state, also fell victim to the walkout.

Advertising

Finally, emergency relief funds for flood-ravaged Umatilla County were left hanging.

The Legislative Emergency Board, a joint committee of lawmakers that has the power to make emergency appropriations between sessions of the Legislature, will convene Monday to salvage what it can of these important efforts. The E-board, as it’s known, has just $75 million to work with. We would hope that the board’s Republican members will show up to help clean up the mess they made of the 2020 legislative session, but even if they don’t, Democrats can act without them, because legislative committees can conduct business with a simple majority of members.

Democratic leaders announced Friday that the E-board would provide funding for flood damage and coronavirus response, but how much remains to be seen. What’s certain is that there isn’t enough money in the emergency fund to make all the allocations. And it would be irresponsible to deplete the fund entirely.

The Republicans’ offer to spend today passing important bills before the final deadline was really not an offer but an ultimatum. Because of legislative deadlines that expired Wednesday, lawmakers would have had to vote to suspend the rules before considering any bills. The minority party would therefore dictate what bills would be taken up — turning the ordinary function of the Legislature on its head.

Regardless of the merits of any bill, cap and trade included, that’s not the way the system works, and by agreeing to that through-the-looking glass procedure, Democrats would be ceding control of the process to the party that holds a minority of seats. We don’t blame them for refusing to do that.