A chronicle of my attempt to create a spreadsheet of every attempted recall of an elected official in Oregon State

Or, how I spent my week starting at Ballotpedia and the Oregon Secretary of State’s website and losing all faith in humanity.

Rachel’s note: I started writing this blog post in October, when I was working on this article about Weston, Ore.’s seventh recall election in 15 years.

Trying to understand why a town of 700 people had so much political turmoil, I ended up finding that Oregon’s laws make recall elections really easy, so I decided to try to make a map showing every recall election in Oregon I could find.

The resulting map took me most of a week (with a good chunk of overtime) and is here. I never published the blog post because I never finished it (or the map, really—I still want to clean up my data table and post it). But I think the humorous things I found while researching are worth sharing, so here you go.

Day 1

3:36 p.m.

Decide to revitalize my efforts to chronicle Oregon recalls. Consider how long this will take and wonder whether I’ll end up having enough hours to get paid for it. Forge on anyway.

3:45 p.m.

Discover that my method of looking on county elections websites for recall attempts is going rather slowly. Also, several smaller counties don’t appear to have working websites or websites with a comprehensive list of election results.

4:12 p.m.

Begin investigating recall committee information via the public search tool on the Oregon Secretary of State’s website.

4:13 p.m. After discovering the existence of 79 recall-related committees, take a break to Facebook.

4:35 p.m. Back to work. Ballotopedia has helpfully guided me to their list of Oregon recall attempts.

5:02 p.m. Discover one election where “charges leveled against the councilors ranged from ‘nitpicking’ at council meetings to an incident where the mayor brought a gun to a council meeting in a suitcase.”

5:11 p.m. “The recall petition said that voters mistakenly voted for Stephen Clark because they thought he was the mayor’s son.”

5:35 p.m. Realize I’ve just finished 2012. We’re going to be here a while.

5:52 p.m. Call it a day after getting halfway through the 2011 recalls.

Day 2

11:03 a.m. Resume combing Ballotpedia data. Come across my first recall which seems serious–a 2011 attempted recall of four city council members in the city of Oakridge was prompted after a $420,000 hole was discovered in the city’s budget. The story apparently made national headlines and led to a significant investigation by the Register-Guard, though surprisingly, all four held on to their seats.

Day 3

8:19 a.m. Discover a recall attempt for the Yoncalla School District where, among other things, petitioners complained that the school board “fail[ed] to respond when [Superintendent] Thielman danced in an Elvis costume at a school assembly.”

8:22 a.m. From a news story about the recall: “Superintendent Thielman did perform at an assembly and did admit his costume was too tight and has apologized.”

8:51 a.m. Another town, Lakeside, had two separate recall petitions filed in the same month: one for five city council members, the other for the remaining councilor and the mayor. The article notes that, had all attempts been successful, the city would have been left with no council or mayor.

On sticking with the godforsaken profession of newspaper reporter

(Cross-posted to my journalism blog.)

I spent yesterday morning in a social studies class in one of the school districts I cover. The class is a new requirement for freshmen called Success 101, which teaches students about making life plans, career goals and budgeting for their future needs.

After I had finished snapping some photos, the teacher asked me to come to the front of the class and tell them about my job and the pros and cons of my work. My answer wasn’t a polished as it could have been with some forewarning, but it made me think about why I got into and stuck with this industry.

The newspaper reporters I’ve encountered, especially the younger ones, tend to be a particular kind of masochist. Every one of my coworkers has at times complained about hating the industry to me (as I have to them). And there’s plenty to hate.

We make no money. (We got a 2 percent cost of living increase for 2014, the first COLA or raise anyone in the newsroom has seen in about five years.) We’re supposed to be happy with this because at least we still have a reporting job at a newspaper, and really, it’s true—we could be doing a lot worse.

We work odd hours. I’ve had to put date night plans on hold to go to a three-hour long city council meeting, get home at 10:30 and then be at work at 7 the next morning to write a story about it. For an afternoon paper like ours, my work day becomes a de-facto split shift when I have to go to a meeting in the evening, which makes it really hard to have a life.

We’re supposed to be able to do everything. My beat (which is supposed to be half-time; the other half, I’m a web editor) requires covering schools, city and county government, business and anything else that comes up in two counties (each with its own main town) plus four other small towns spread over Washington and Oregon. Theoretically, this means I should be an expert in educational policy and laws governing public records, land-use planning and municipal government in two states. In practice, this means I’m usually playing catch-up.

Our jobs are high-stress and sometimes require us to confront the worst of human nature. We spend weeks on in-depth feature reporting projects or investigative pieces only to see them get almost no feedback from readers, and then we spend half an hour writing and posting a story about a dead body being found and watch it become the most-viewed article online that month. Any mistakes we make are instantly in the public eye, and our desk phone and cell phone numbers are intentionally available to anyone who asks, making us easy targets for people with a bone to pick.

But I wouldn’t trade this for anything (until I have kids at least, and need to start saving for college for them). As much as the pay sucks and the stress feels like too much sometimes, my job is one of the few I’m aware of where my day-to-day work is always different and rarely boring. Some days, I sit through school board workshops and learn how federal education policy passed 10 years ago is going to impact the students in my area next year. Sometimes I get to drive around wind farms with a biologist who cares deeply about bat migration. And sometimes, I sit in the office reading the New York Times online and waiting for the seven or eight people I’ve called to get back to me.

Being a reporter is a license to keep learning. It’s a license to stay in school indefinitely, except you don’t get graded, you can stick to learning about topics you’re interested in and the only papers you have to write are supposed to be in plain English without formatted citations.

Especially at a small-town paper, being a reporter means people look to you as a source of information. You get to find important stories and share them with your community, and hopefully help give voice to people whose concerns might not otherwise be listened to. You get to give people a platform to be heard. You make sure everything is working as it should by sitting through long, boring meetings so other people don’t have to.

It’s not an easy profession to stick with in 2014, and I think my brief speech to those kids made it sound like reporting is, on the whole, not that great. But when I’m able to make the pay work and see past the hours and the stress, I can honestly say there’s no job in the world I’d rather be doing right now.

National Day of Civic Hacking

So, I spent this gorgeous Saturday in Portland holed up in a loft office building, huddled over my computer analyzing Oregon legislature data with a team.

This all started at Code With Me Portland, a two-day intensive workshop designed to teach journalists how to code (specifically focusing on interactives). That weekend, I built an interactive map which displays feeds of the latest government meetings in Walla Walla County. It’s still being developed, to, among other things, contain a real feed instead of the dummy links I have in there now. I’d been hanging out on Codecademy learning HTML and CSS sporadically, but Code With Me really let me practice those skills in a practical way and see how a project could be developed from start to finish. And I was excited to find more changes to apply my limited nerd skills to cool things, especially things related to journalism and information access.

National Day of Civic Hacking

Naturally, when I found out about the National Day of Civic Hacking, I was excited. It’s a nationwide thing, with events in something like 100 different cities all occurring this weekend. Basically, developers, designers, policy experts and assorted other nerds get together and try to build something cool using data sets and public information.

I went to the Portland event, because it was closer to Walla Walla and a group of Code With Me mentors and students wanted to team up. Our team consisted of Daniel Bachhuber, a Code with Me mentor and programmer with tons of experience, especially in WordPress; Ivar Vong, another mentor  and developd at Emerald Media Group, and Susan Currie Sivek, a mass communications professor at Linfield College (aka another awesome tech-savvy journalist).

We started out talking about lobbyist and campaign finance data, but we ultimately decided we didn’t want to go down that road, because there are a number of pretty good sites which display campaign contributions, and we didn’t have a clear problem we were trying to solve by building something slightly different.

Instead, we ended up focusing on bills from the Oregon legislature, which we had been looking at incidentally while discussing campaign finance. We found three existing databases of these bills, none of which were especially user-friendly. The state government website is the worst—it allows you to search for keywords within a bill, but then takes you to a full text version with a short (one sentence) summary that’s not especially informative.

The Oregonian’s site is more readable, showing you where a bill is in the legislative process. Still, it doesn’t offer much in the way of context.

Oregonian

For instance, this bill would prohibit siting a composting facility within 1500 feet of a school. Your first thought upon reading that might be, “Why on earth does that need to be legislated at all?” And the bill summary and full text, even for those willing to sift through them, don’t offer much in the way of context.

Now, as it turns out, there’s actually a pretty controversial compost facility that’s been proposed in Stafford. Residents are worried that it will contaminate groundwater and have odor and noise problems. And guess what? It’s located within 1500 feet of a school. In other words, this random bill would stop the Stafford facility if passed, but there’s no way of knowing that from looking at the Oregonian site or the state legislature page. You’d have to be interested enough to do your own search for the bill number and see what Google turns up.

In addition, there’s the fact that even a well-educated person is hard-pressed to understand what any given bill actually does. One-sentence summaries don’t often cut to the heart of what a bill is about or tell you who it will most impact, and most people don’t want to skim through a few paragraphs of legalese to figure out what’s going on in more depth. (Initially, this was kind of a surprise for me, since I’ve been excited about doing that since like sixth grade. I guess my politics major and political nerdiness does come in handy.)

We set out to build a site which was designed with the user in mind, rather than the data itself. Instead of just dumping all the bills on a site and letting people search them, we wanted to give people an opportunity to respond to and interact with bills. Our site was called What the Bill, and we wanted to include these features:

  • One of our big features was to allow users to react to bills by clicking a button. We gave them options including “What?”, “Tell Me More” and “They’d Better Not”, and each bill page displays all of the reactions submitted so far.
  • Another problem we identified with existing databases is how hard it is to isolate bills that have a chance of passing and are actually relevant. We wanted to build a homepage which would display three lists of bills: “hottest” (based on a combination of page views, total reactions and media coverage of the bill), most recently changes (thing the legislature has just taken action on), and editor’s choice (to allow admins/journalists to highlight bills that seem boring, but would actually have significant impacts if passed).
  • Each bill has a “who” and “where” field which are designed to describe the groups of people and areas of the state that would be most impacted should the bill pass. Each field would function as a tag, so a user could go to one page to see every proposed bill which would impact, for example, homeowners, Native Americans or Multnomah County. These fields would be editable by users from a menu we wrote, so we could essentially crowdsource this information and get it listed for all bills relatively quickly.
  • We also had a “what” field, which provides a plain English summary of each bill. For demo purposes, Susan and I wrote a few summaries. We envisioned the site having a team of journalist admins who would check for popular bills or bills where a lot of people voted for “tell me more” and summarize based on that. We also wanted to allow people to suggest edits or submit their own descriptions (like a moderated wiki), but we didn’t have time to build that in.
  • Finally, we wanted each page to provide a news feed of related articles, which would come from several sites that regularly cover Oregon politics. This would mean that, for instance, the page about that compost bill would also have a sidebar linking to news about the proposed Stafford facility, allowing readers to make that connection without having to Google it themselves.

This was a lot to build, and we had about four hours to do it once we finally decided on an idea. Ivar and Daniel did the hard working, using a database called LegiScan which has an API to import information about Oregon bills into a WordPress site. Susan and I created categories for the Who and Where tags and summarized a few bills, after our attempts to design a bill page using our rudimentary CSS knowledge became unnecessary.

Obviously, we didn’t build all the features we wanted to in four hours. Daniel and Ivar did an awesome job just getting the bills imported and setting up the reaction tags, and we got Who and Where working, though they’re not tags and not editable by users yet. We also didn’t get a chance to design a homepage, so the site just has a blog-style listing of the bills themselves. But for a few hours of hacking, our team got a lot done. You can view the site here, and one of the bills I edited and wrote a summary for here.

At the end of the day, all the teams presented their work and the organizers gave out a few awards to projects. We won a People’s Choice  Award, which was really awesome, and came with a few hundred bucks of prize money. The rest of my team not being broke recent college grads, we elected to donate our winnings to a Portland organization which teaches girls to code (I’ll link to them once I get the name.)

All in all, it was a challenging and fun day, and it definitely gave me a better sense of the kind of skills I’d like to be developing. And I’d definitely like to do it again next year.