The state of Oregon has taken some halting steps forward during the last few years in terms of ensuring public access to public records, a refreshing change after decades of steady retreat.
The 2019 session of the Legislature can continue these efforts to help sunshine flow through the halls of state and local governments — or it could revert to its old practice of approving legislation that chokes off public access one exception at a time.
These thoughts came in the wake of a report last month from the state's Public Records Advisory Council and Ginger McCall, the state's public records advocate. You'll recall that McCall was selected by Gov. Kate Brown and started work in April. Brown's record on government transparency has been spotty, but it could well be that her appointment of McCall is the single best thing the governor has done for open government. McCall's work during her first year has been exemplary. (The online version of this column features a copy of the report.)
Since starting work, McCall and her office have handled nearly 100 requests for assistance from members of the public, along with media outlets and government agencies. The office also has conducted 38 in-person training sessions, including a couple in Albany. It probably isn't a coincidence that as McCall continued to travel around the state, the requests for assistance really started to pick up.
And common themes started to emerge during her conversations, according to the report: First, there's remarkably little data regarding Oregon's public records law, including how many requests agencies receive, how long it takes to respond to the requests, and the fees agencies charge. That's why McCall's office in 2019 plans to survey public bodies; the office also is calling for legislation creating basic annual reporting requirements.
The fees charged by public agencies for records continue to be a source of frustration. The council's report notes that state law allows for fees to be reduced or waived in cases where the agency believes that release of the records is in the public interest. But that determination is highly discretionary, so a requester never knows for sure what the bill might be — and there is a sense that some agencies charge exorbitant amounts as a way to discourage requests.
Delays in responding to requests continue to be a problem, despite legislative action in 2017 that added timelines: Under the law, public bodies must complete a response within 15 days or provide an estimated date of completion. But the law also includes a huge exemption: If the public body determines that compliance would be "impractical," the timelines don't apply. As a result, public bodies often simply blow off requests — including a couple that we've filed in the mid-valley.
Officials complain, with some justification, about requests that are needlessly broad. The report recommends that bodies be sure they have knowledgeable officials on hand who can work with the public to find ways to narrow requests.
And about those exemptions, each one of which places another set of records off-limits to the public: No one knows how many of those exemptions exist in Oregon law, although the best guess is around 550. The report recommends creating a meaningful method for the public to track bills (and they come up every session) that create a new exemption.
The report also recommends that the Legislature take action to make the Public Records Advisory Council permanent; the council now is scheduled to expire on Jan. 1, 2021. But the council's work won't be done by then. It might never be done. If our history with public records shows us anything, it is that open government always is at risk. (mm)
Last call for holiday tunes
It's the last call for nominations to the Think Too Much Holiday Music Hall of Fame. If you'd like to nominate a recording of a favorite holiday song that you think is definitive — which is to say, no one could ever record a better version of that song — you have until the end of the day on Wednesday, Dec. 19.
This year, we have two phone lines open for nominations; operators may not be standing by, but leave a message if I'm not there. The phone numbers are 541-812-6097 or 541-758-9502. You can hum a few bars of your nomination into the phone, but this is not required. You also can nominate a track by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After nominations close, the selection committee (this year, it's Cory Frye, James Day and yours truly) will convene at the hall of fame's mountain retreat and descend from the mountain with this year's inductees. We'll hold the gala induction ceremony next week. (mm)