Sunshine week: Let the sun shine in

In my first newsroom, I sat behind a gray, rusting filing cabinet – my so-called desk – and clipped stories from last week’s paper to file in our press log. 

We worked in an old blue farmhouse, a long-gone Bible printing press, with weeds overtaking the porch and creaky floorboards rudely interrupting your every thought. The door hinges were rusted, exposing metal ribbons of tendon and bone – each joint chipped and vulnerable. 

I’d go in early, before school, to sit quietly and drink the coffee I was too young for – waiting for the sun to rise. And through the haze of those old windows, frosted over with mildew and dust, I learned something new, something simple, just by waking up with the sun. 

This edition, The Chronicle is celebrating Sunshine Week alongside news organizations across the country to highlight the importance of transparency in government and the work of journalists to ensure openness among elected officials. 

Your right to know is a cornerstone of public record and meeting laws. And open government is a two-way street lined with trust. 

These laws together guarantee the right to access government information, allowing the public to witness decision-making so that the democratic process functions properly – and to be made aware when the doors are closed. 

James Madison understood the value of information in a democratic society, as well as the importance of its free and open dissemination — so on his birthday, today, as a part of Sunshine Week, we’re celebrating Freedom of Information (FOI) Day, too. Madison, who is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution and the foremost advocate for openness in government, wrote that “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

A timely example in Cottage Grove

A case in point is the story we published this week, unearthing the contents of an internal investigation into the conduct of former Cottage Grove Police Department leadership. 

For well over six months, the city and I debated the value of personal privacy vs. public interest – and luckily, due in no small part to the openness of Oregon’s public records laws, the district attorney agreed with me, ruling that the public interest outweighed the personal privacy of high-ranking city employees – regardless of previous denials from the city for those documents. 

So despite many phone calls, polite asks and closed doors, I decided to push forward. 

Why? Because it’s your right to know. 

Public trust doesn’t come easy, it’s earned. The City of Cottage Grove – a community I’ve been fortunate enough to walk alongside – is asking itself a lot of tough questions. It’s shaking out the rot, pulling back the weeds and examining its values, all in the backdrop of a national conversation about police misconduct. 

It’s easy to ask, Why write this now? It’s been months since the resignations of former Chief Scott Shepard and Capt. Conrad Gagner, and the department is moving forward. 

To that, I answer – it’s because readers asked me to. Because a veil of silence was drawn and it’s the role of public-service journalism to lift it. 

Because during that long wait, the rumor mill in Cottage Grove continued to speculate, sling half-truths and misinformation.

Because you can’t plant seeds in salted soil. 

The role of media, affectionately called the fourth estate, is to ensure public business is conducted with openness and transparency. And in this case, it was clear taxpayer values weren’t being represented in tax-funded positions. 

The CGPD story speaks to the value of the laws that reinforce open government and protect transparency – a foundation of public service. These rules are not in place simply to make journalists’ work easier, trust me – sometimes news doesn’t arrive on time, sometimes it takes months, multiple records requests, long phone calls, denials, endless paperwork and, finally, a physical thumb drive, because the documents weren’t made digitally available. 

Rather, these laws exist to let citizens know when officials are conducting public business outside public view. 

I’m often reminded of my little filing cabinet – and the many, many readers who passed by me to sit with an editor over coffee. Some came to speak about a loved one who’d passed, some came to see their grandkid’s picture in the paper and others came to ask questions, to raise issues and to speak up about what they believed in. 

That’s the core of it. We work for you. And this week, we’re reminded to walk outside the darkness of secrecy and let the sun shine in. 

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