Ginger McCall did Oregonians a service in pointing out some of the serious flaws in the state’s public records law before she resigned last week as Oregon’s first public records advocate.
But the problem is even more fundamental than McCall implied.
She made fine suggestions on her final day at work, including prohibiting public agencies from charging exorbitant attorney fees, of $180 per hour or more, to pore over requested records for potentially exempt material before releasing them to the person who asked for them.
McCall also highlighted the ridiculous provision in the law in which a person whose request for a record is denied by an elected official, rather than an appointed one, can only pursue the matter by filing a lawsuit.
These are problems the Legislature should address, ideally when it convenes for a short session early in 2020.
But the greater problem with the records law is that it allows public agencies, which are the holders of these records, to proceed as though most, if not all, records are likely to contain the sorts of private information that rightfully could be redacted before the record is released.
But a considerable percentage of records contain nothing of the sort, and by law they should be readily available to anyone who asks for them.
Yet the current system seems all but designed to discourage people from even asking, lest they be presented with the sort of cost estimate typically associated with the purchase of a car or a home.
This is nonsensical.
We’re talking here about mundane documents prepared with taxpayers’ dollars, and in many cases showing how those dollars were spent. These aren’t nuclear weapon launch codes.
Much as our justice system is based on the presumption that the accused is innocent, the public records law should be based on the presumption — which in this case also happens to be true — that public records, by and large, are not exempt from disclosure
In many cases — and probably in most cases — a clerk could determine quickly that a record contains no exempt information. No need to threaten to hire a lawyer to do the same task at 15 times the cost.
McCall’s revelations about the pressure exerted on her by state officials were valuable, and so are her recommendations for making public records more accessible.
Ideally the attention that her resignation has focused on the law will also lead the Legislature to take a more comprehensive look at what the vast majority of records actually contain — and what they don’t contain.
Until public agencies and their employees understand that they shouldn’t treat every record requested as if it’s the likely repository of secret data on which national security depends, the law is apt to remain more an obstacle to public access than the guarantor of access it’s supposed to be.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor