Bend City Attorney Mary Winters gave members of the City Council a short course on part of the state’s public records law at the council’s meeting this week. The point she made was well taken.
Councilors who forward constituent emails to others must forward the full email, including the name of the sender. As she noted, in most circumstances all emails to and among public officials are a matter of public record, even if they’re sent by private citizens.
There are good reasons for that.
From a councilor’s point of view, the requirement assures that every member of the body receives the same information and can judge it accordingly. That’s important: Knowing who favors or opposes something like a proposed increase in the transient room tax may give councilors a better sense of the proposal’s impact on different segments of the community.
More importantly, members of the public have a right to expect their government to do their business in the open. Knowing, or being able to find out, who lobbied in favor of something — or against it — gives the public a critical tool to judge how well its government is functioning.
It’s all too easy these days to find reasons not to make information public. In the case of public pension beneficiaries, the argument is that one’s retirement income, even that supplied by public tax dollars, is no one else’s business. In the case of bedbug infestations, hotel owners would be hurt if reports of infestations included the names of places where those infestations occurred, though surely would-be guests have a right to such information. In the case of lottery winners, knowing who won can help assure the public that the game isn’t being rigged.
Finally, when it comes to city business, even something as seemingly minor as the name of the sender of an email is important. Without that name, the sender is anonymous and the public cannot judge either his motives or his connection to the person he’s addressing.