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EDITOR’S COLUMN: We need your help to overcome Salem city secrecy

UPDATE Tuesday, Nov. 15: With contributions from 91 donors, the Disclosure Fund has topped $5,000. Any balance not needed for the current public records bill will be reserved and applied to future public records costs. Donations are still welcome: DISCLOSURE FUND LINK.

The city of Salem is trying to grind us down and we need your help to push back.

For months, Salem Reporter has dug into circumstances around the departure of a top city official.

Steve Bellshaw was a deputy police chief who left in February. He had been accused of misconduct serious enough to warrant putting him on administrative leave three months earlier.

The city cut him a deal – allowing Bellshaw to retire, paying him an unearned $53,000 in public funds and pledging to keep quiet about it all.

Since then, Salem Reporter has been seeking the truth about this. The city has tried to keep it all under wraps, blocking access to public records and ignoring legitimate questions.

We haven’t given up. We sought one order seeking disclosure of records but Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson sided with the city. Since then, Salem Reporter did win Clarkson’s order to disclose information about Bellshaw’s administrative leave. And now the city is under direction to produce some records about its terminated investigation of Bellshaw.

We also invited city officials to talk to us about narrowing the scale while getting relevant documents. No city official took us up on that offer.

This all takes time and it’s a big lift for a small news team.

Now, we encounter a new obstacle.

In the face of continuing questions from Salem Reporter, the city’s strategic initiatives manager provided some answers in a statement. Courtney Knox Busch said there was no allegation of criminal conduct, that finding an investigator had failed, and that the law wouldn’t allow the city to release records.

Salem Reporter asked for documents that backed up these claims. We also invited city officials to talk to us about narrowing the scale while getting relevant documents. No city official took us up on that offer.

Instead, the city said it would cost Salem Reporter an estimated $4,225.90 to get those records. And there is no assurance the city would disclose whatever it found.

‘Negatively impact’ the city

The law allows government to waive fees in the public interest, but city officials say more harm than good comes from providing records at no cost.

 “The time, expense and interference with the business of the city to compile and provide the records is substantial and outweighs the benefit to the public,” the city explained. Taking time to pull together the records would “negatively impact the city staff’s ability to meet the needs of other customers.”

The city broke down the costs, showing it would take about 44 hours of staff time to find the records. The city estimated its IT crew would need seven hours – nearly an entire work day – to find records. It estimated its police staff would need the equivalent of two work days. Even the city recorder’s office would have to put in five hours.

That seems remarkable given that Busch’s statement was all of four paragraphs. If she didn’t have documents readily at hand on which to base her statement, what did she rely on?

A $155 million budget

But the bill, perhaps unintentionally, revealed that far more people in City Hall have been involved in the Bellshaw matter than has been disclosed. The city said people in five departments would need to round up records. Until then, the city has been insisting city records about the Bellshaw matter were all in the hands of city attorneys and privileged.

The burden of the $4,000 on the city needs to be put in context. The city is running on a $155 million general fund budget ­– $5 million more than last year. The city employees who would work on this request already get paid by the city. And the budget is robust enough that the city plans to spend $250,000 on something called “organizational enhancement.”

Why not enhance public trust in City Hall and give up the documents without such a fuss?

Here’s the bottom line.

The city has fought release of records at every step of the way. The city has implied that it is prohibited from releasing records and that’s proven not true. At one time, the city slowed its handling of a request by claiming it didn’t understand what we wanted when we asked for copies of city emails. We’re still waiting for those.

Now, the city is taking a new tactic to keep us out of its business – the public’s business.

City officials want to load us up with fees, probably betting that a small news operation can’t afford the tab and we’ll give up.

The city is only half right.

Not giving up

As a local news outfit, we can’t afford to write a $4,000 check to the city of Salem.

But we’re not giving up. That’s because of you.

In recent weeks, we have heard from many of you that you want more transparency from the city. We don’t engage in these fights because we have little else to do. We pursue the facts because that’s what you count on us to do.

So, now we need your help.

We’re asking you to donate to cover that $4,000 city fee. Nothing would speak louder to the city manager, the city councilors and the new mayor about what the community expects from those at Salem City Hall.

We need you to become a citizen watchdog to help pry open those city files.

Our pledge is that every dollar will be used for public records costs.

To help, you can use our online donation tool – DONATE LINK – to add to our Disclosure Fund. If you want your donation to be anonymous or you have questions, send me a personal note at [email protected] If you prefer a check, mail: Salem Reporter, 72585 Middle Fork Lane, Bates OR 97817.

Just 40 giving $100 gets us there.

We’ll keep you posted on how the effort is going and whether we’ll hit the goal. I am betting we will. Who wants to be first?

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. Reach him by email at [email protected]

RELATED COVERAGE:

City charges thousands for records proving public statement about investigating police official

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.

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