The Willamette Week, like most alternative weeklies, usually takes only potshots at the community’s dominant medium – the long, in-depth pieces usually take off in their own independent directions. As perhaps they should.

This week, they did something different, pointing an extremely barbed arrow at the editorial heart of the Portland Oregonian. For no single story has been closer to the heart of that paper than the abuse of methamphetamine. And much of the paper’s reportage on that story, the Week says, has been badly flawed.

To back up for a moment: The O‘s coverage of this subject, led by reporter Steve Suo, has in many ways been remarkable. It has included some superb research – large portions of it reached a peak of journalism any newspaper would aspire to. And it has had substantial legislative effect, not only in Salem but also in Washington. For just one example, people won’t be getting their cold medicines the same way, because of these stories.

But we have for some months pointed to flaws in this coverage as well: Its conception of the meth story, as insular and central to a much broader social pathology, has been distortive. Its sense of causes is weak, and its direct argument for solutions fails under slight pressure.

The Willamette Week, which decided to fact-check and critically consider the paper’s meth coverage, covers some of those points and more besides. Consider its summary:

In its effort to convince the world of the threats posed by meth, The Oregonian has sacrificed accuracy. According to an analysis of the paper’s reporting, a review of drug-use data and conversations with addiction experts, The Oregonian has relied on bad statistics and a rhetoric of crisis, ultimately misleading its readers into believing they face a far greater scourge than the facts support.

Few local media watchers are willing to criticize The Oregonian‘s coverage of the meth problem. But skepticism about the growing frenzy has begun to appear in the pages of major papers across the country, from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, where columnist John Tierney recently wrote that politicians have become so meth-obsessed, “they’ve lost sight of their duties.”

Some of this apparently stung: The Week says that while the Oregonian originally cooperated with its review of the meth coverage, that cooperation ended partway through the research on the article. You have to wonder what prompted the change of heart.

The Oregonian has regularly described meth abuse as an exploding epidemic ripping apart communities, especially Portland. For most of us, that gets a little hard to see, at least at that level. The Week cited national studies showing that the number of meth users in recent years (roughly, this decade) has either been flat or (by one study) has fallen. Locally, it notes, “There is no good count of the total number of Oregon meth users, nor any clear measure of whether that number is growing.” Key point after key point, one oft-repeated (and seldom-questioned) statistic after another, the review disassembles the myth of the meth epidemic.

For anyone who has read the Oregonian on the subject over the last year and a half, this is absolutely essential reading.

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When a political campaign makes a change in staff late in the campaign, that’s usually a sign of trouble. The locus of the trouble could be in several places, but it usually is somewhere in the area. And it doesn’t bode well.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s what popped into mind at sight of the Seattle Times headline, “Microsoft makes changes to Windows group.” Only a few months ahead of the originally planned relerase of the new version of Windows, Vista, the corporate has held off on delivery of the consumer version (nothing terribly shocking in a delay) and, soon after, announced reorganization of the relevant sectors of the corporation.

Smells like trouble. In some way or another.

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Washington

The Oregon Supreme Court has taken some heat over the years for its strict intepretation of the state’s constitutional ban on free speech. The new decision in Outdoor Media Dimensions v. Department of Transportation may win it some new critics from other angles. But those critics won’t be able to argue that the court is being inconsistent in its rigorous take on free speech rights in Oregon.

Outdoor Media Dimensions owns billboards, many of them positioned along state highways, and it sells the advertising space on them. It has chafed under Oregon’s restrictive rules on billboards, most of them included in a 1971 law, the Oregon Motorist Information Act, passed in part to meet the standards of federal highway beautification law. Some federal funds are tied to state adherence to that law.

The law includes a mass of provisions governing what is and isn’t acceptable. The Supreme Court upheld most of them. But one aspect of the signage law was troubling: The law treated differently signs located on commercial property that related to the business at that location, from signs which are about anything other than the owner of the local property. That meant the law treated the signs differently based on what they said, rather than on some other consideration, such as safety or size or unsightliness.

This can get more complicated that you might first imagine. At one point, the court muses:

Before turning to the state’s response, we note that the scope of the issue here is not as broad as petitioner suggests. Petitioner’s brief uses, as additional examples of signs that it contends are prohibited by the OMIA, signs that in fact might not be prohibited by that law. Petitioner asserts that signs expressing the message “Pray for Peace” or the message “Keep Abortion Legal” always would require permits because they necessarily would be “outdoor advertising signs” rather than on-premises signs. Arguably, however, if the first message were displayed on the property of a church or the second message on the property of a facility offering abortion services, those signs would inform the public about “activities conducted on the premises on which the sign is located,” ORS 377.710(22), and thus be considered on-premises signs not subject to the OMIA’s permit requirement. Moreover, a plausible argument can be made that a sign with the message “Pray for Peace” on a residential lot is about activity on the premises, namely that the owner of the residence prays for peace and exhorts others to do the same.

But then it notes:

We agree, as we have explained above, with the state’s view that Article I, section 8, does not prohibit reasonable time, place, and manner regulation of speech imposed for reasons apart from the message of the speech. We also understand that the state is asserting that there is a constitutionally meaningful difference between the OMIA and laws that focus directly on categories of speech that are familiar from First Amendment cases, such as obscenity, political speech, and commercial speech. However, unlike the dissent, we do not find the state’s argument persuasive. As noted, the OMIA would allow a sign with the message “Buy Gas Here,” but prohibit the same sign from carrying the message “Eat at Joe’s: 10 Miles Ahead.” As we explain at greater length below, such a restriction, on its face, prohibits certain speech based on its content. The OMIA’s different treatment of on-premises and off-premises speech therefore violates Article I, section 8.

That puts it in plain langauge. And it also suggests that the impacts of this decision may not be as great as some of the early news stories on the decision seem to suggest.

The seriousness the court takes the free speech issue occurred again in another of Outdoor Media’s contentions. The state law requires that a billboard operator obtain a permit and, in many cases, pay a fee before erecting the billboard; that, Outdoor Media said, is prior restraint of speech. The court analyzed the specifics closely, and noted the similarity of several other prior restraint cases – in which it said the restraint was impermissible – before concluding that, because the state didn’t have any control of what would actually be placed on the billboard, that “prior restraint” didn’t apply here.

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For all the multitude of laws, rules and regulations under which we all live, there are still some things which, though considered wrong or improper, are things which most of us simply don’t do. Call it courtesy, or even just socialization.

There’s one few now in Tacoma, with the passage of Resolution 36796, necessitated by a council member who Went Too Far.

Tom StengerHe was Councilman Tom Stenger, who – speaking at a work session some weeks back – got angry and used the “f” word, directed at another council member. That led to a reaction, of course, as council members – apparently including Stenger, who has since apologized – concluded that something should be on the books to deal with such occurrances.

Thus the new resolution, passed Tuesday, which remarkably wasn’t a real overreaction. It simply banned “contemptuous or disorderly behavior” at meetings. Maybe a little more remarkably, it also included sanctions against council members.

Go too far, and the rules will kick in.

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Washington

For all the multitude of laws, rules and regulations under which we all live, there are still some things which, though considered wrong or improper, are things which most of us simply don’t do. Call it courtesy, or even just socialization.

There’s one few now in Tacoma, with the passage of Resolution 36796, necessitated by a council member who Went Too Far.

He was Councilman Tom Stenger, who – speaking at a work session some weeks back – got angry and used the “f” word, directed at another council member. That led to a reaction, of course, as council members – apparently including Stenger, who has since apologized – concluded that something should be on the books to deal with such occurrances.

Thus the new resolution, passed Tuesday, which remarkably wasn’t a real overreaction. It simply banned “contemptuous or disorderly behavior” at meetings. Maybe a little more remarkably, it also included sanctions against council members.

Go too far, and the rules will kick in.

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Washington

Will Gale Norton or Dirk Kempthorne make the next big appointment within the Department of Interior: Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation?

And what are the chances that this person might be Idaho’s director of water resources, Karl Dreher?

John KeysQuestion arises because of word emerging today that John Keys, commissioner since 2001 (and a BuRec guy for four decades), will retire on April 15. Curious, the timing coming just at the time of change of interior secretaries. But it does raise the question of who gets to make the choice of a replacement. (The president could dictate if he chose; ordinarily, interior secs can make the call with approval of the president.)

The difficulty is that no one yet knows how long it may be before Kempthorne takes over the secretariat – six weeks? Three months? Maybe more?

Or might Norton and Kempthorne work out the appointment between them? If they did, one reasonable prospect emerges: Karl Dreher, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

Karl DreherThere’s precedent for a BuRec commissioner coming from exactly that position: Keith Higginson did it when Cecil Andrus went from governor to interior secretary. In this case, there’s another factor. Norton is from Colorado, where she was attorney general. Dreher is from Colorado, too, a substantial figure in the water wars on the Fron Range, and with a creditable enough record there that his move to Idaho came with no serious controversy. Nor has Dreher been a very controversial figure in Idaho – at least considering what might have been, bearing in mind the sensitivity of water issues over the last decade or so.

No inside information here. But it is a credible possibility …

UPDATE On the other hand, there’s some talk among people knowledgable about the water bureaucracy that Dreher might not be the guy.

From 1975-82, Dreher ” worked for the Bureau of Reclamation where he headed the Analytical Design Group in the Concrete Dams Section. During his tenure with the Bureau, Mr. Dreher performed or directed various levels of design, analysis, and evaluation for 7 major concrete dams and their foundations.” Then he left for a private firm, and has worked with a range of public and private employers on impressive projects around the globe – but never seemed to head back to federal employment. Speculation is that Dreher may not be interested.

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Eventually, the piling on got to be serious enough to get results.

So anyway would read the logical conclusion of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski’s reversal on debates. At first, it sounded as if he wouldn’t be debating at all through this year’s election cycle (though he probably never said that explicitly). Then came the slithered-out word that he would, yes, participate in one multi-candidate gathering. Now comes word that he will appear in two of them, and April 6 and April 11.

His staff made the point that these will be more visible and widely-seen debates which will held closer to voting time, when voters will be paying more attention. Okay. But the word previously was that he wouldn’t be participating in primary debates, which means something changed.

The story coming out of the recent debates, as much as anything, has been the governor’s absence from them (and in a couple of cases, the loss of what might have been endorsements from significant organizations). That’s a persistent negative story, and it behooved the governor to cut his losses.

So they don’t show up for debates? This is how you get them to show up for debates . . .

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Could be that no other city in the country outdid Portland last weekend in protesting the war in Iraq. Maybe.

Police in Portland figured the crowd size at close to 10,000 – a fairly large group, even by Portland standards.

That contrasts with the New York Times report of other protests around the country: “The administration could take heart this weekend from the relatively small antiwar protests around the country, compared with protests held on the previous anniversaries of the invasion. An estimated 7,000 people demonstrated in Chicago on Saturday and smaller protests were held over the weekend in Boston, San Francisco and other cities. In Times Square, the figure was about 1,000.”

Something seems not quite right here. Was Portland that much an anomaly, or were turnouts elsewhere seriously underestimated?

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Article III Section 12 of the Idaho Constitution says, in simple and direct language, the following: “The business of each house, and
of the committee of the whole shall be transacted openly and not in secret
session.” That is all it says on the subject of openness in the Idaho Legislature.

Now let’s imagine a hypothetical bill: HB001, which follows the usual path to adoption. It surfaces in a House committee, which votes to recommend it be introduced by the full House. Sent to the House floor, it is formally introduced and read for the first time, and then – this is what happened to almost all bills – it is sent to a committee, which reviews it. The committee may decide to “hold” – kill – it, or suggest amendments, or send it as is back to the House floor for a vote there. In this case, the bill is given a “do pass” recommendation, returned to the House floor, where it is read (in very abbreviated form) for a second time, and then, a day or two later, for a third time. It then is voted on and, if passed, it is sent to the Senate, where the same process more or less repeats. If the Senate, too, passes it, it goes to the governor for signature or veto.

From the moment of its introduction until it either dies or is sent to the governor, the bill has a continuous history in the House and Senate. When the bill is sent from the House floor to a committee for further review, that is an action of – part of “the business of” – the House; and what happens to it there is surely also a part of the business of the House. One would think.

The Idaho Supreme Court, or at least a 3-2 majority of it, doesn’t so think. In its decision today in Idaho Press Club v. State Legislature of the State of Idaho, our hypothetical HB001 is part of “the business of” the House as long as it remains on the floor, but drops into some lawmaking netherworld once it is assigned to a committee, then becomes once again part of “the business of” the House once it returns to the floor. The public has a constitutional right, the court says, to track activity on that bill while it is on the House floor, but not when it is being acted upon by a House committee.

How can this make sense? In the majority opinion authored by Justice Daniel Eismann, the point is that the constitition didn’t specifically say that committee meetings must be open to the public. More significant, it suggested, is the reference to the “committee of the whole” – noted in the constitution, while other committees are not.

The “committee of the whole” is an odd legislative beast (quite different, as the majority notes, from other committees), used by House and Senate as a theoretical replacement for their full bodies for the purpose of amending bills on the floor. What it means is that – let’s go back to HB001, and say a committee had recommended it be amended – the House would adjourn, and then convene this theoretically completely separate body called “committee of the whole” whose sole purpose is to amend the bill. (No, no sensible reason this runaround is still on the books, or why the regular old House or Senate body shouldn’t be constitutionally enabled to do the amendments, comes to mind.) In other words, the House (0r Senate) has just said, “we ain’t the House (or Senate) any more” – the constitution essentially bans the use of that device as a means to closing floor sessions.

You can see why the majority’s logic relies on a stunning narrow reading of the constitution: A sentence whose purpose seems evidently drafted for the purpose of ensuring openness has been interpresented to allow for closure wherever it isn’t inescapably banned. The basic tenor of the constitution, and of Idaho law for that matter, runs in the opposite direction: Keep it open unless there’s a truly compelling reason for closure.

It is true that for many years legislative committees met behind closed doors in Idaho (as they did in many other states). That doesn’t mean they were acting correctly; several common legislative procedures in use today (such as that used to satisfy the “reading” of bills) could easily run into trouble under legal challenge.

Justices Jim Jones and Roger Burdick dissented. Here is part of what Jones (with Burdick concurring) had to say:

I am unable to read the Idaho Constitution in such a fashion as to allow the State
Legislature, which was established by the people, to have the ability to exclude the people from any stage of the lawmaking process. The majority opines that since committees are not specifically mentioned in art. III, § 12 as being subject to the prohibition against transacting business in secret session, the Legislature can close committee meetings to the public. On the other hand, there is no provision in the Constitution that authorizes or provides for the Legislature to establish committees to conduct any of its legislative business. Just because the Legislature has chosen to conduct a good deal of its work in its various committees does not mean that the legislative business conducted in those committees can be shielded from public view. Based on my understanding of the role of committees and the history of art. III, § 12, I simply cannot accept the notion that the people would require the Legislature to conduct the people’s business in public yet intended to permit the Legislature to create smaller forms of itself and conduct that business behind closed doors. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

Should be noted: The decision isn’t likely to change actual current procedures at the Idaho Legislature, which with only rare exceptions over a period of decades has been riforously open: Only rarely have committees, in the last generation and more, sought to close their meetings.

But that’s owing to the good will of the legislators – so far – who generally have kept the doors open. If future legislators decide otherwise, Idahoans will get no help in learning about many of their activities from the Idaho Constitution.

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Idaho

forestGood perspective in an Oregonian piece on a tectonic change in the timber industry. “Tectonic” may be the wrong adjective since it connotes glacial speed; but we’ll stock with it in suggesting a fundamental realignment.

The core point in the piece was this: “Historically, giant timber companies managed vast empires that included both mills and forestland. At their peak, International Paper Co., Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and Boise Cascade Corp. owned more than 25 million acres. But tax and business changes over the past decade encouraged specialization, and companies increasingly split ownership of the trees from production in the mills.”

Now, privately-held partnerships, like the Obsidian Finance Group, Forest Capital Partners and the Campbell Group, increasingly are buying and holding the timber lands.

Why the change? The article doesn’t spell it out, but one suggestion is this: Management of timber lands properly should be considered a long-term investment proposition, not something you can turn into big profits in the next quarter. But what they lack in immediate returns they gain in solid, long-term value, something concrete and real that will have value, and likely not lose value, years from now. (The Campbell Groups likes to say that “Over the past 35 years, timberland has outperformed common stocks and long-term corporate bonds.”) In other words, sounds like a job for a privately-held company: One less concerned with the hot analysis from Wall Street next week than it is in building value deep into the future.

Something to think about as we consider the structure of resource industries, and of business in general, in this country.

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migrating salmon - FPC pictureWonder if this will get as much attention?

A few months back, Idaho Senator Larry Craig inserted language into a bill which aimed to de-fund the Fish Passage Center at Portland, it being the organization that actually counts the number of fish (of certain types) passing through the Columbia River system. Craig said the small agency duplicated efforts elsewhere; advocates said that was not true, and the real issue was that the FPC was collecting data inconvenient to Craig’s position on salmon recovery. Most directly, the Center has been paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration.

That story was the last most Northwesterners heard of the situation. Quietly, however, Indian tribes and environmental groups challenged the action legally, and on Friday their efforts paid off. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the measure into which Craig inserted his de-funding language was not actually a bill which was made into law – that technically, it amounted to a statement of intent and nothing more. And ordered the Center re-funded.

Next move?

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Oregon officials have been debating for some time whether they will practically be able – as Seattle has started to do – to get in on the next generation of high-tech activity: biotechnology. The signs have looked good, but the results haven’t been there.

Till Friday. That was when the California biotech firm Genentech said it would set up a substantial shop at Hillsboro, eventually hiring 200 to 300 people to staff it. Specifically, the company “announced its decision to acquire land in Hillsboro, Oregon for the construction and development of a biotherapeutic fill/finish manufacturing facility, which is expected to be licensed and operational in 2010.”

Those jobs, which likely will pay well, are significant, but much the smaller part of the importance of this. (Though Fortune mangazine has named Genetech number 1 on its list of best American companies to work for.) The Beaverton-Hillsoboro area already has many of the components you’d need to make biotech go: It has Intel, loads of other tech development, and major medial research and provision organizations (notably the Oregon Health & Sciences University) in the immediate vicinity, and all the big-city resources that could be needed right over the mountain in Portland.

Now, with the arrival of a major corporate biotech presence – and Genetech is a major operator in the field – the engine may have what it needed to start turning.

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