The quiet fight for the public’s right to know

As we cover the discovery of lead pipes in Medford’s water system, we’re also fighting behind the scenes for an important public record that could shed more light on this critical public safety issue: the Medford Water Commission’s performance evaluation of embattled Manager Larry Rains.

The commission ordered the review after questions arose over whether Rains responded appropriately to the possibility of lead pigtails in the water system. (See Damian Mann’s special report here.) Rains denied the presence of lead pipes on the very day one was found in west Medford — and, as it turns out, that pipe wasn’t the first.

We believe the evaluation, which took into account not only board members’ views of Rains’ performance but the views of his employees and outside agencies, could tell us how the manager of Medford’s water system responded to quality and safety concerns over the years. Did he encourage employees to report and act on residents’ complaints of water quality issues? Did he foster an environment in which safety came first?

The Water Commission claims the evaluation process is not yet complete and therefore the record is not yet public. Larry Rains was placed on administrative leave Wednesday and announced he would resign Oct. 31. How much more complete must the process be?

The commission denied our Aug. 31 public records request initially on the grounds it fell under the exemption of “internal advisory communications.”

We appealed to Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, who rejected the commission’s claim, pointing out that in Oregon, the public’s interest in the evaluation of a top-level employee outweighs the government’s interest in keeping it confidential.

Heckert also said, however, that the evaluation “must be complete before the record should be disclosed” and denied our request.

“The public interest in knowing how top level public employees are functioning is important but should not impede the process by being disclosed prior to the conclusion of the process,” she wrote in her Sept. 21 order.

Heckert gave the commission no clear direction on what constituted a completed process, but added, “I would strongly encourage the City of Medford to release (the evaluation) … as soon as possible once the Board has completed the evaluation process.”

We say the process is complete. What say you, readers?

 

Note: This blog has been corrected to reflect that the Medford Water Commission, not the city of Medford, is holder of the public record we seek. Though the commission is an agency of the city and the mayor appoints its members, it acts autonomously. The city and the commission share the same attorney, Lori Cooper.

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    Cathy Noah

    Believe it or not, journalists are real people, too. Editor Cathy Noah explores the inner workings of the newsroom, explaining why the Mail Tribune did — or didn't — do something that made readers angry / sad / happy / incredulous / stupefied. ... Full Profile
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