Government records – whether police reports, municipal contracts, emails from elected officials or high school graduation results – are public records. These are records and data produced in the course of work that city offices, school districts, and state agencies perform on behalf of the public.
They are also the keys to tracking the efficiency and ethics of our government’s operations. And unfortunately, it can be ridiculously difficult for those who verify government work to obtain them.
Senate Bill 417, crafted by the State Public Records Advisory Council, targets one of the biggest obstacles in the way — the arbitrary and excessive fees government agencies charge to respond to requests. of public archives. The bill would direct agencies to waive fees for requests deemed to be in the public interest, unless there is “substantial harm to the trustee or because the waiver will prevent the trustee from being able to perform such other functions as the depositary is entrusted with performing”. .”
In other words, the waiver would always be weighed against the practical limitations of personnel and time. Most importantly, prioritizing fee waivers marks a shift in mindset, reinforcing the idea that transparency should be a regular cost to government in its operations.
The bill also clarifies and defines a practice that often appears to be based on whim. It clarifies that agencies can charge for searching, duplicating and reviewing records; establishes a process to improve communication between an agency and an applicant; and requires an agency to explain the fees it charges if requested by the applicant.
“It really puts that solid foundation under the words ‘democracy’ and ‘transparency,'” said longtime journalist Emily Harris, who chaired the council’s legislative subcommittee that crafted the proposal for the past year. .
First, let’s admit that our editorial board is entirely biased in favor of disclosure and fee waivers. Our news agency would certainly benefit from not having to pay thousands of dollars a year for materials that help us hold agencies accountable at all levels of government. Second, we must also disclose that Steve Suo, one of the board appointees, is a longtime former editor of the Oregonian, married to editorial board member Laura Gunderson. But this bill is critically important – not so much for businesses like ours, which can and should cover these costs – but for smaller organizations that lack the resources to do so.
As we know from the recent shutdown of the Medford Mail Tribune, local news outlets here and nationally are struggling to stay afloat amid prolonged industry-wide upheaval. But that local scrutiny, whether it’s the continued coverage of the drought and water crisis in the Klamath Basin, the declining high school graduation rates at some schools in La Grande, or the Bend supermarket shooting investigation, hinges on access to public information. Excessive fees can deter companies of all sizes from pursuing stories that help the public understand how their government works — or doesn’t.
Among the examples sent to the council for consideration: Lincoln County sought to charge the Newport News Times $1,750 for documents relating to a dispute between the district attorney’s office and the county commission that unfolded in the eyes public ; county committee meeting. And in Deschutes County, the circuit court abruptly reversed its longstanding practice of posting search warrants in the electronic court record available to reporters. When the Bulletin submitted a request for the previous year’s search warrants, the reporter was told it would cost $33,975 for a judge to review them first. These types of accusations can deter the review before it even begins.
The bill represents a solid compromise reached by a diverse group, representing government, news media and public viewpoints. While some may dispute one element or another, the bill does an admirable job of creating a workable structure that promotes clarity, consistency and fairness.
Only one member of the public records board, which represents the state’s largest union of public employees, voted against the proposal. Among his concerns was the wording of the bill which assumed that news media requests are made in the public interest, without similar consideration for other organizations or individuals. But nothing prevents requesters from claiming that the information they seek is also in the public interest. The bill simply recognizes the unique role the news media plays in keeping Oregonians informed on a wide range of issues on a daily basis. In fact, their existence depends on serving the public interest.
Currently, SB 417, which was introduced by Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, who sits on the public records board, sits on the Senate Rules Committee with no scheduled hearing. It’s still early days, and he doesn’t face an immediate deadline by which to move forward. But at the same time, it is one of hundreds of Senate bills introduced this session. And if elected officials often talk about the importance of transparency in campaign speeches, it is much rarer to see it in practice.
Transparency builds trust – in policing, in education and in government as a whole. Elected officials who want to stand behind their own words should show it this session by pushing SB 417 forward and giving it the “yes” vote the bill — and the public — deserves.
-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board
Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.
Board members meet regularly to determine our institutional position on current issues. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can provide clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.