On Jan. 19, I walked into the Wheeler County Sheriff's Office in Fossil and requested records publicly available under Oregon's laws.

I was told no.

Before being told no, however, County Sheriff David Rouse - friendly as the friendliest of neighbors before hearing my question - walked toward me slowly and purposefully and asked me to repeat myself. Although he appeared to have heard me clearly the first time, I repeated it. Once near me and without any hesitation, he quite firmly said "no."

He then added that the requested documents - concealed handgun permit applications - had personal information, like Social Security numbers. He gave no further explanation. Looking me in the eye, he said he didn't know who I was.

It didn't sound like a question, but I think he expected a response.

A little bit earlier a few miles down the road in Condon, the school district superintendent there, Gene Carlson, had followed me into the school's main office, sat down in a tiny child's chair, leaned back, crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head before demanding answers.

"Who are you?" "Who are you with?" he had asked, obviously suspicious.

We were waiting then for the school's deputy clerk, Lori Myers, to return with my requested copy of his employment contract. It included his annual salary and other terms of his employment.

Carlson demanded my name several times.

Once I gave it, he waved his hand mockingly in a hello fashion, and then said again, drawing out each word, "Okay... now.. who .. are ... you ... with?"

Finally getting information that he wanted, Carlson told me, "I find it frustrating when people come in and don't tell me why. I'm an open communicator."

While I finally did get a copy of Carlson's contract with the district, I, too, felt frustrated, plus a little bit tired and rather battered.

With Sheriff Rouse, I pretty much ran away after his stare-down. I found both his demeanor and his resolve not to give me information intimidating.

Later, Christina Fitzsimmons, office deputy for the Gilliam County Sheriff's Office, also frightened me away. She was extremely confident - and seemed to slightly take pleasure in - denying my access to the county's concealed handgun permit applications.

And she had back up: Undersheriff Gary Bettencourt, who quickly came forward and demanded my name.

In counties across the state that day, similar incidents were occurring.

Coordinated by the Associated Press and newspapers statewide, volunteers went to police departments, school offices, county sheriff departments and city halls in all 36 counties seeking documents supposed to be readily available to the public under Oregon law.

According to Oregon law, every person has a right to inspect any public record of a public body in the state, unless the record is specifically exempted.

Citizens are not required to give their names or state their intended use of the information they are requesting.

Posing as an average citizen unschooled in the law, fear and frustration prevailed as I went about my quest for records and information I knew to be public.

Sadly, my experience and that of others volunteering as auditors was not unexpected.

Public employees, gatekeepers of public records, refused to unlock the doors. Hostility flared when their demands went unanswered.

And while Oregon's laws clearly allow for much information to be available to the average, taxpaying citizen, many public employees seem to not understand the laws. They are quick to site privacy concerns about the release of any information - a fair and admirable response, but not good enough.


AmyJo Brown is a reporter in the East Oregonian's Hermiston bureau. She can be reached via e-mail at ajbrown@eastoregonian.com or by calling 541-564-4533.

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