After Tuesday's calamity, we cannot expect American society to be as open as we've come to expect. But neither should we accept the unreasonable withholding of what should be public information when national security is not an issue.
Unfortunately, that has been a growing problem nationally for years, and rural communities are certainly not immune.
At the federal level, a prime example of the tendency of officials to constrict the flow of information the public deserves access to was highlighted earlier this month when the General Accounting Office threatened to sue the Bush White House. The GAO wants the White House to identify the business leaders who met with Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential aides to help formulate the administration's energy plan. The White House has refused.
At the heart of a 4 1/2-month dispute over disclosure is how much influence corporate America had in the work of Cheney's task force. The panel announced a plan last May aimed at increasing the nation's supply of energy. It includes expanded oil and gas drilling on public land and a rejuvenated nuclear power system.
Regardless of what the public thinks of the energy plan, they deserve to know who helped shape it.
The Bush White House could have blocked any GAO court action and ended the dispute by filing a letter of certification stating that releasing the information would "substantially impair" government operations. That would be a preposterous claim in this case, which apparently even White House realized.
This isn't a unique situation. The GAO, which serves as the investigative arm of Congress, has been in dispute with the executive branch four other times in the past 20 years. In two of those cases, the administration relented and supplied the desired information.
Less serious but nonetheless troublesome examples of restricting the flow of public information aren't hard to find locally. Umatilla County commissioners considered closing a meeting to the public at which a radio system for use in case of a disaster involving the Umatilla Chemical Depot would be discussed. The argument was that discussion would be much more frank in private.
Oregon's public meetings and information law offers no such provision, and the meeting ultimately remained open to the public, although no one other than the press and the people involved showed up.
Information also is restricted when it's delayed or hidden rather than blatantly blocked. The drug task force that operates in Umatilla and Morrow counties often waits days to release information on drug busts and arrests. And none of the police logs in Pendleton, including Oregon State Police, Pendleton and the county, made any reference to what turned out to be a bogus bomb scare at the Pendleton airport earlier this week. Had the press not been alerted to the event by a civilian, the incident could easily have gone undetected by the public.
It's also unsettling that some elected boards and councils regularly hash out controversial issues outside of advertised meetings, so when the council or board meets in public session it takes action with little discussion or input. Such actions are not in sync with Oregon's open meetings law and tend to remove the public from what should be issues of community discussion.
National security is one of the few obvious justifications for withholding information that should be available to the public. But that argument rarely applies, and it's hard to imagine it ever applying locally. The emphasis at the community level should be to keep information open and available to all on a timely basis.