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Editorials

Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Oregonian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

Gov. Kate Brown wasted no time Wednesday morning in pledging her unwavering fealty to the public — public employee unions, that is.

Following an unfavorable U.S. Supreme Court decision, she and Oregon public-employee union executives released a statement decrying the Janus vs AFSCME decision, which prohibits unions from collecting fees to cover collective-bargaining costs from employees who are not members. The statement, which urges employees to “stick together,” is issued on official Oregon letterhead and headlined “Governor Kate Brown Stands with Oregon Union Members.” Apparently, public employees who aren’t union members can go take a hike.

Credit Brown for not hiding her commitment to public employee unions, even at the expense of the public. Considering that the unions have been among her most generous campaign contributors, it’s not difficult to see why she has dragged her feet on seeking substantial employee pension reforms or why she rallied behind unions’ ill-considered Measure 97 campaign. Her official endorsement of unions to help stave off defections fits right in.

But recent actions by her office give the public reason to keep a close eye on how far her administration may go to help unions hold onto members. As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Ted Sickinger reported, Brown is considering seeking new limits on what employee information can be released to the public with possible legislation aimed at the 2019 session.

The move, according to a letter by her chief of staff, comes in response to two developments: A May records request by the anti-union Freedom Foundation, which wants to contact employees to tell them how to opt out of union membership and fees; and the release to The Oregonian/OregonLive of a data set with names, job titles, salaries, demographic information and month and year of birth. Neither provides a compelling reason to sacrifice transparency.

In response to the letter from Brown’s chief of staff, Nik Blosser, Department of Administrative Services Director Katy Coba said she will ask the state’s new public records advocate to look into the issue and share the research with the public records advisory council. Coba said she will also ask for input from the state’s new “Sunshine Committee” comprised of journalists, public officials and others, which is tasked with examining the state’s 550-plus existing exemptions from public records law. In addition, Coba directed all agencies to alert the governor’s attorney anytime it receives a request for a “large” data set — a change that should raise suspicions about why the governor’s office needs to be told.

History tells us why we should be concerned. In 2015, the Department of Human Services stalled for months on fulfilling a request by the Freedom Foundation for the names and contact addresses for home health care workers. An earlier Supreme Court ruling found that those workers were not required to pay the agency fees that other union-represented public employees had to. But with input from Brown’s office, the agency stalled long enough to give the Legislature time to specifically exempt the information that the Freedom Foundation had sought.

Blosser told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that Brown’s current interest isn’t focused on the Freedom Foundation or other organizations. He also said that unions weren’t behind the call to review employee information exemptions — despite complaints Blosser heard from the director of the state’s largest public employee union earlier this month about the data release, according to the Malheur Enterprise.

Rather, Blosser said, the objective is to strike a balance between employees’ privacy rights and government transparency. Of particular concern, Blosser said, is whether birth month and year data could leave an employee vulnerable to identity theft or a Cambridge Analytica type intrusion.

Such disaster fantasies, however, aren’t based in fact. Blosser couldn’t name any instances in which public records requests led to identity theft or other similar crimes. But he said he fears how someone could use information like birth months and years, and pair it with some of the immense amount of data already publicly available.

That caution may seem reasonable from a safety point of view. But it doesn’t consider how incomplete data affects the public’s ability to scrutinize the state’s operations. For example, the data received by The Oregonian/OregonLive includes employee names, titles, salaries, month and year of birth, gender and other demographic information — all data that’s critical to analyzing the state’s conduct as a public employer and whether, for example, the state pays employees equitably across age, race, gender and other areas.

The privacy versus transparency argument is also reminiscent of the justifications given for many years by the state to hide pension payment data from the public. That changed in 2011, after The Oregonian and Salem Statesman-Journal forced a legal settlement that required the state to release data showing pension recipients, monthly payouts, final salary and other information that has been critical to giving the public a clear understanding of the severely-underfunded pension program they pay for.

And whether Brown wants to admit it or not, the Freedom Foundation can make a credible argument for why access to employee information serves the public’s interest. The Freedom Foundation’s Oregon director said his group wants to alert employees about their options as a result of Janus — something the state has failed to do.

Employees who are satisfied with the unions’ record in delivering benefits may come to that conclusion by themselves. Brown and the unions should give them the chance to do so.

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