A recent federal court verdict punishes the city of Roseburg for complying with Oregon’s public records law, dealing another blow to a fading sunshine law.
You can’t blame the ex-police sergeant, Gregrey Fetsch, who won a $750,000 judgment Feb. 28 in Oregon District Court in Eugene. He may have gotten a raw deal from the police department.
Nor is this a complaint against the jurors, who were asked to take sides in a dispute between Fetsch and the city. State law and the principle of open government weren’t factors.
Still, the decision was disheartening. The city will be penalized, unless it appeals and wins, for choosing to be transparent, an increasingly rare thing.
Fetsch was a highly decorated 18-year veteran when Chief Jim Burge gave him a matter of hours in 2010 to quit or be fired.
Fetsch’s offense, according to the department, was engaging in an extramarital relationship and making officers under him uncomfortable by talking about it.
Seven years short of being eligible to retire with full benefits, Fetsch was forced from his $76,527-a-year job.
Although a state disciplinary panel found no reason to revoke his license to be an officer, Fetsch couldn’t find another police job, so he went to Afghanistan, where eight of his co-workers were killed by a suicide bomber.
He also filed a federal lawsuit against the city. He made a number of allegations and one stuck.
Back in 2011, The News-Review wrote about Fetsch’s forced exit. The city didn’t volunteer the information, but complied with a formal public records request to release the letter spelling out why Fetsch was being disciplined.
After a three-day trial last month, jurors concluded the letter contained false and stigmatizing statements about Fetsch.
Furthermore, the city should have granted Fetsch a hearing to clear his name before releasing the letter, jurors found. As a result, Fetsch’s 14th Amendment right to due process was violated.
The city may have prevailed if the police department had built a stronger case against Fetsch. But that’s the more worrisome part of the case. The next time a city receives a request for information about an officer’s alleged misconduct, rather than asking what the public has the right to know, the guiding question may be: Is there the slightest chance our internal investigation won’t fare well in a federal trial?
Oregon’s post-Watergate public records law already was a mess. Exemptions are so numerous and vague that the law has limited practical use. We’re reaching a point in which counties, cities, school districts, etc. interpret the law as allowing them to withhold anything that might embarrass any public employee. The Fetsch verdict aids that mentality.
If federal courts are going to undermine state disclosure laws, federal lawmakers should intervene, as they have on many issues, and work to make open local government the law of the land.