Making we the public pay dearly for our records

By Jayson Jacoby November 02, 2012 09:30 am

The Freedom of Information Act — FOIA, not to be confused with a fancy food made from the forcibly fattened livers of waterfowl — is one of those laws that sounds a lot better than it is.

(Unlike fois gras, which I’ve heard tastes better than it sounds. Although considering the recipe it could hardly be otherwise.)

President Lyndon Johnson signed the original federal law in 1966. Congress has tinkered with FOIA several times since, but the basic idea remains the same.

Which is that Americans ought to have reasonable access to the immense volume of data their federal government exudes.

The public servants who expectorate this avalanche of information are supposedly serving us, after all.

Many states, including Oregon, have enacted similar laws that deal with records from state and local governments, including cities, counties and school districts.

We journalists harbor a particular fondness for these sorts of laws.

We disdain secrecy, for one thing.

For another, unshackling reams of official documents makes possible more thorough, and responsible, reporting on important topics.

Frequently it’s a plain manila folder, not a flamboyant and shadowy off-the-record source with an affinity for clandestine meetings in parking garages, that breaks a big story.

Trouble is, neither the federal nor the Oregon law entitles citizens to go poking around in government file cabinets or computer records with what could reasonably be described as ease.

I get that limits must be placed on the public’s access to what are putatively their records.

It wouldn’t do to have potential assassins copying the Secret Service playbook, for instance.

Yet in the vast majority of cases, the person seeking information has a legitimate rather than a sinister purpose, and is after records lacking a shred of national security implications.

A recent example showed up in my email inbox.

The sender is John George. He lives near Bates, in the valley of the Middle Fork John Day River just across the Grant County line, about 50 miles by road southwest of Baker City.

John is a committed critic of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s pending Travel Management Plan, which aims to ban motor vehicles from certain forest roads.

He has, among other tasks, been researching historical trends in local elk populations and comparing those figures with changing strategies for managing the Wallowa-Whitman over the decades.

The impetus for John’s studies is the Wallowa-Whitman’s contention that motor vehicles harass elk and have pushed the animals from prime habitat on public land. This negative effect on elk is one of the main justifications for the proposed ban on such vehicles.

John, whose family tree in this area goes back as far as some of the big ponderosa pines, believes historical records would cast considerable doubt on the Wallowa-Whitman’s case by showing that elk populations have thrived during periods when forest roads were pretty well overrun with log trucks and other vehicles.

To that end he has submitted public records requests to the Forest Service and to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

His inquiries have not been especially fruitful.

Kevin Martin, the Wallowa-Whitman’s interim supervisor, informed John by a letter dated Oct. 19 that the information he asked for could be his for the low, low price of $832.

(Martin’s letter doesn’t actually include the phrase “low, low price.” But it does cite the $832 estimate.)

That’s what Martin figures it would cost Forest Service employees to find and photocopy the documents John wants.

The accounting breaks down this way:

FOIA gives citizens the first two hours of document searching and first 200 pages of records for free.

Beyond those limits, though, agencies can charge for the work. The Forest Service’s rate is $32 per hour for research (a wage that’s more than twice Baker County’s average, by the way), and 20 cents per photocopied page.

I’m haunted by ambivalence on this matter.

On the one hand, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect any public agency, whether a little city or the gargantuan federal government, to employ people who drop whatever task they’re engaged in and start rifling through boxes of musty, mice-nibbled records every time a citizen poses a query.

On the other hand, those pesky laws are on the books — in the case of FOIA, which LBJ put his pen to, they’ve been around since The Beatles were recording “Sgt. Pepper’s.”

Among the records John is looking for are Forest Service records that date to 1912. Those aren’t available with a couple of taps on a keyboard.

Yet it seems to me that the federal government — any public agency in fact — can be more accommodating than sending letters to the public saying, sure, you can have “your” records as soon as you pony up at least half the estimated cost and, in the case of John’s request to the Wallowa-Whitman, sign a “willingness-to-pay statement.”

Which sounds rather Orwellian.

I think it would be right neighborly if the Forest Service instead invited John, who’s not asking for special treatment, to look through those antique records for as long as he wants to during regular business hours.

I suspect just such an offer would be granted to, say, a historian who was chronicling the Forest Service’s legacy.

To reiterate, such leniency would not necessarily be appropriate at the Pentagon.

But the Forest Service hardly is the keeper of national secrets. No American will be put in harm’s way if a guy from Bates is allowed to dig through the Wallowa-Whitman’s logging and grazing records from the World War I era.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.