Let's cut to the chase: Of course the meetings should be open. As far as we can tell, there is no justification for holding these meetings in private.
Especially not now, after the state has spent millions of dollars to develop a system that still doesn't work.
In some ways, this legislative oversight committee seems like a microcosm of the entire Cover Oregon fiasco: According to the Salem Statesman Journal, which broke the story, considerable confusion exists about the role the committee was intended to play, who was in charge of the meetings and how the meetings should be run. As the story developed, Cover Oregon officials said the panel was a legislative committee. Legislators said they thought the panel was under Cover Oregon's jurisdiction.
What is clear is that the committee has met nearly two dozen times, meeting monthly since May 2012. The Statesman Journal reported that Cover Oregon staff set the agendas, scheduled the meeting times and ran the meetings. Lawmakers showed up for what they assumed were briefings.
The meetings didn't receive much press attention because — well, because no one from the press knew about them.
On the agenda for this week's meeting: A presentation from Cover Oregon officials on options for fixing the health insurance exchange website. Reporters got wind of the meeting, thought it might be interesting — what on Earth were they thinking, huh? — and showed up, only to be told that the meeting was closed.
Bitter recriminations followed. Eventually, Cover Oregon officials said they thought that it would be swell if the meetings were open — but that the decision should be made by legislators.
For their part, some legislators told the Statesman Journal that they always had assumed that the meetings were being run by Cover Oregon and that it was OK if the meetings were closed. The legislators added that, in general, the briefings hadn't been particularly interesting or useful, possibly because Cover Oregon might have had an interest in, shall we say, massaging the information.
So, to summarize: The legislative oversight committee didn't have much of a chance to serve its function, whatever exactly that might have been. And the fact that the meetings were held behind closed doors meant that neither the press nor the public had any opportunity to scrutinize the information presented.
Maybe that wouldn't have made much difference in heading off the Cover Oregon fiasco. But going forward, it's essential that state officials put a premium on transparency as we try to figure out how to fix this mess.
The (Bend) Bulletin, March 28: Cover Oregon shuts public out of oversight
We already knew Cover Oregon spent money it shouldn't. It created a health care marketplace that didn't work. And now we learn it held secret meetings when it said it wouldn't.
Salem's Statesman-Journal reported Thursday that Cover Oregon kept its oversight meetings with the Legislature behind closed doors. Cover Oregon and the Legislature provided no public notice of the meetings. It provided no agendas. It kept no minutes. The meetings were held monthly since May 2012 in secret.
When a reporter tried to attend, the reporter was escorted out.
Legislators who did attend were not able to do much oversight. They weren't given basic information about what was going on. For instance, they say they weren't told of the quality assurance reports, produced by a contractor hired by the state, that month after month warned Cover Oregon was in trouble.
Cover Oregon officials insisted the oversight committee meetings were not public meetings and so they didn't need to follow Oregon's public meetings law. Only a judge can ultimately decide if the meetings ran afoul of the law.
They certainly violated the spirit and intent of the law, which is that the public's business should be done in the open. Why exactly should oversight of one of the most important health care changes in Oregon history be kept secret?
One legislator, committee member Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, argued the meetings should remain secret. Public officials often are enamored with the idea that if the public is shut out, outcomes will be better because the discussions will be more frank. "The substance of public meetings can be different than the subject of private meetings," Greenlick said.
How many more fiascos like this does it take before that homily is dispelled by laughter?
What makes the secret meetings worse is the hypocrisy. Cover Oregon officials declared they would be open and transparent. Cover Oregon Chief Communications Officer Amy Fauver told The Bulletin's editorial board on July 24 that Cover Oregon was going to be open about what it does. She failed to add that would not include program oversight.
Blinded by hubris and smitten with a crusade to bring better health care, Cover Oregon managed to produce what is arguably the worst health care marketplace in the country. And it tried to hide what it was doing from the public.
The Daily Astorian, March 27: Deadly landslide highlights region-wide slate of issues
With at least 16 dead and the potential for many more casualties from a massive landslide in Oso in northwest Washington, all rural residents on the wet side of the Pacific Northwest will be casting wary eyes toward our own steep and unstable hillsides.
In a sense, landslides are the flip side of wildlife risks that worsen as population expands into previously unsettled areas. Fire danger is associated with placing residential areas within forests, without hydrants or adequate buffers between dwellings and trees. Landslide danger comes from homes in proximity to slopes that may never have been very stable, and are less so following heavy rains and surface disturbances like logging or road building.
Astoria is of course infamous for its many interspersed slippery slopes, with slides thus far impacting property values rather than taking lives. But there are numerous other serious examples of unstable terrain tearing across highways and other structures in the Lower Columbia region. The most notorious in recent years was the massive December 2007 disaster that covered U.S. Highway 30, resulting in evacuations and an expensive, months-long reconstruction.
Watching news reports about the Oso slide, we have been lucky. Covering a square mile with tangled debris and obstructing a river, this event obliterated a small concentration of country homes. This was a "town" in the much the same sense as many in our own area, where a lot of country roads lead to far-flung hamlets of anywhere from five to 25 houses. Also as in Oso, many of these neighborhoods cluster along valley bottoms to take advantage of water views and access, while industrial forestry remains a vital part of our economy on surrounding steep hillsides.
The Pacific Northwest will get nothing but more crowded, as the U.S. population increases and people relocate from hotter, drought states. The temptation will be to develop in more remote and less appropriate forested areas. Pragmatically, there may not be much that can be done to stop this.
But we should look at our own situations, taking note of factors like rivers eroding the footings of hillsides like the one that gave way in Oso. More intense rainfall events and a switch from snowpack to more rain are predicted to become the norm. It is time to more carefully take slope stability into account when considering logging permits or giving the go-ahead to other types of development.
As our region accommodates denser mixes of land uses, we must figure out how best to live side by side, taking risks into account and fairly allocating the costs. This will sometimes mean saying no to developments located below undependable hillsides, or no to certain land modifications above dwellings. But better this than what happened in Snohomish County.