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Here we go again: Another agency flaunting the public’s right to know and misinterpreting open records laws.

Last week, we asked the Clatskanie School District for any disciplinary records and complaints and other documents related to the performance of Clatskanie Elementary School Principal Brad Thorud.

As you may know, the town of 1,700 is in an uproar over the school board’s decision not to renew his contract. Parents and students held a march to protest the decision. Some teachers have weighed in to support the administration. Discord over the issue is poisoning the town.

In addition, a petition to recall three of the school board members who approved the action is going to a public vote May 1 and already has prompted one of those school directors to resign. Another board member has resigned for unrelated reasons, which means the school board could be reduced to one veteran member if the recall petition succeeds.

The problem here is the public and the debate are flying blind because there never has been an official disclosure of records and information to judge whether Thorud should stay or go. That is why we requested them.

Last week the district politely declined, citing two exemptions in the Oregon Public Records Law.

The first states that personnel discipline actions, or materials or documents supporting those actions, are exempt from disclosure [ORS 192.345 (12)].

The second exempts “information of a personal nature such as but not limited to that kept in a personal, medical or similar file, if public disclosure would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy, unless the public interest by clear and convincing evidence requires disclosure in the particular instance.” [ORS 192.355 (2)]

Not to get too legal here, but note a crucial part of the phrase above. The law requires disclosure of documents if the public interest requires it.

There is a compelling public need to see Thorud’s disciplinary and performance documents. In fact, if this case doesn’t meet that test, what case would?

We are not seeking personal information. We are seeking information about his performance as a public employee. We are seeking information that can help voters judge whether the board made a good or a bad decision. We are seeking information that could at least give everyone a common and factual basis for making important decisions.

The lack of reliable information is leaving an important public matter to be decided based on rumor and innuendo.

On Monday, we will file a formal appeal with the Columbia County commissioners to reverse the district’s decision.

We have found over the years that too many agencies are too eager to withhold records when there is a compelling public interest to release them. And many of them are guilty of the same mistake Clatskanie is making now: Many statutory exemptions, including those invoked in the Thorud case, are an OPTION to withhold, not a MANDATE to withhold.

Clearly there is a strong public interest in releasing Thorud’s records well before the May 1 recall vote.

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