Oregon State Capitol (copy)

When Ginger McCall, Oregon's state public records advocate, started work in her job, one of the first things she noticed was a lack of data about how state and other local governments dealt with requests for public records.

She had heard anecdotally about how some agencies were groaning under the weight of requests from citizens and the news media. And, in fact, it can be true that needlessly broad requests for information can throw a wrench into government offices.

But McCall, who became the state's first records advocate after the Legislature approved creation of the office in its 2017 session, didn't have much in the way of hard information about those requests. So she launched a survey of Oregon public bodies to see how they deal with those requests. The idea was to get a feel for how well government offices of all sizes comply with the state's public records law and to possibly identify sticky spots  hindering the public's access to those documents.

Results of McCall's initial study are now in, and it's a mixed bag — something that will not surprise anyone who has followed the overall state of Oregon's public records law over the past few decades. Nevertheless, the survey represents a promising step forward in a battle that has been marked by considerable retreat since Oregon initially overhauled its records law in the early 1970s.

There is good news in the survey: McCall sent it to 132 bodies, including state agencies, counties, cities, school districts, boards and special service districts. Although McCall's official portfolio extends only to state agencies, one of the happy surprises she's encountered is the general willingness of other governmental entities to work with her and her office. That willingness included a gratifyingly high response to the survey: In all, 97 agencies responded. She said that's an indication agencies are taking their records responsibilities seriously.

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In the survey, agencies were asked how many requests for public information they received during 2018, how many were completed during a 15-day deadline, how many were completed within 60 days of the original requests, how many fee waivers they granted during the year and how much revenue they collected from those fee requests. (In general, Oregon state law allows agencies to recoup the costs of fulfilling records requests, but many requesters can recount stories of being socked with what they thought were unreasonable fees. State law also gives agencies the option of waiving fees in cases where they determine that a records request is generally in the public interest.)

The results varied dramatically from entity to entity: The Oregon Medical Board, for example, reported that it received 1,414 requests in 2018 and dealt with them all within the 15-day deadline. 

On the other hand, the Oregon State Police and the Department of Environmental Quality each received more than 4,000 requests, far more than any other agency. State Police officials said the department was able to process about 800 of its requests within the 15-day deadline — although, to be fair, many of the requests it receives are complicated and often involve consultations with officials such as district attorneys. Other agencies, such as the Department of Justice, said they don't track this information, which says something about the importance of getting state agencies on the same page when it comes to public records.

McCall said she plans to send out fresh surveys every year, to assess progress and to look for trends. It's a good idea. 

And she noted the continuation of a troubling trend: The state of Oregon has an estimated 650 or so exemptions to the public records law — records that over the years have been moved out of the public view by legislative action. This year's Legislature added another 20 or so exemptions to the list. Any way you look at it, that's not progress. (mm) 

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