Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt determined Aug. 2 that the county medical examiner must release the names and addresses of people who died from the historic heat wave in June that killed at least 71 people in the county and 116 statewide.
WW sought those names and addresses last month, in an effort to determine patterns in housing conditions and other factors that might have worsened the natural disaster.
Citing an exemption in Oregon public records law that allows public agencies to withhold death records, the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office had previously denied the release of demographic data stemming from the heat-related deaths to WW, the Portland Tribune, KGW-TV and The Oregonian.
WW and the other news outlets appealed that denial to the DA’s office, noting that the records are “conditionally exempt,” meaning the agency has discretion to release the records if there is an overwhelming public interest.
Schmidt determined there was such a public interest. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum reached the same conclusion Friday, ordering the state medical examiner to release names and addresses. (WW did not participate in the appeal to the state.)
In his conclusion, Schmidt ordered the medical examiner to “promptly disclose” names and addresses to the media outlets for individuals whose cause of death has been confirmed to be hyperthermia and whose next of kin have been notified.
“[The news outlets] argue that if over a hundred deaths resulting from an unprecedented heat wave do not justify a public interest in disclosure, then what facts possibly would?” Schmidt wrote in the Aug. 2 opinion. “Petitioners rejoin that, on matters of such serious public import, the public records law permits the public to check the government’s work and that reporters need not settle for ‘trust us.’ We think petitioners have the better argument.”
By law, the medical examiner now has seven days to release the data. County officials weren’t immediately sure when that release would happen.