Sunday, December 6, 2009

Making Oregon Public Records Public

Making Public Records Public
AIR DATE: Monday, December 7th 2009


Part one: I tend to agree with Jerry Cressa for ... - refugee [ Me }

In August I submitted a FOIA request to the EPA ... - truth1

If Attorney General John Kroger has his way, Oregonians should soon know more about their ability to access state records and take part in public meetings. On Wednesday he announced that the DOJ has put the state'sPublic Records and Meetings Manual online. He also created an introductory Citizen's Guide to the somewhat complex world of public records requests, as well as an online request form (pdf) for people seeking DOJ documents.

The other big part of Wednesday's announcement was the news of the creation of a new position: the Government Transparency Counsel, whose mission is to "improve the enforcement of Oregon's open government laws":

The position will coordinate all public records requests to the Department of Justice. It will also coordinate DOJ's legal services to state agencies, boards and commissions on issues related to the Public Records Law. The new position will serve as a resource to Oregon's 36 district attorneys who handle appeals from local government denials of public records requests, and it will advise the Attorney General with respect to appeals from state agency denials of public records requests. The goal is to ensure that Oregon's Public Records Law is consistently and correctly applied, as the law requires.

At the same time, the Attorney General's office recently moved to limit the information that can be released about businesses accused of consumer fraud.

All of this falls on the heels of a fair amount of public records news. Most directly, there was a very public disagreement about whether or not someone could post the DOJ's copyrighted manual online. (The issue seems moot now that the state has posted the manual itself, but you can read the whole back and forth on U of O professor Bill Harbaugh's blog.) And then there's the Portland start-up Nozzl Media, which is based on the idea that "vast repositories of public records could be scoured by software robots and made easily available online to citizens."

What stories based on public records requests — and the information they uncovered — have stuck with you? (For a few examples, here's The Oregonian onwho plays the lottery, Willamette Week on Portland's heaviest water users, andThe New York Times on water polluters across the country (including in Oregon)).

If you're not a reporter, or an enterprising citizen muckracker, will a more streamlined public records process encourage you to make a request? What would you look for?

COMMENTS: (2 total) newest first | oldest first
{The comments are short and don't include all relevant information because OPB/ThinkOutLoud limits comments to a few paragraphs.]

In August I submitted a FOIA request to the EPA, which is now being delayed by Oregon DEQ, so I can say from personal experience how very difficult it is for citizens to access government records. When I initially asked the Oregon Attorney General's office for help, they were at first supportive. But when they became aware that some of Oregon's public agencies might be involved, they withdrew their support. The primary concern of that office, as explained to me by a public servant, is to protect those state agencies; it is not to provide transparency to Oregon's citizens. The mechanics of achieving transparency are needlessly intricate and bureaucratic because they are designed to protect government officials from accountability to citizens who might find some malfeasance in their handling of public business. By the way, Senators Wyden and Merkley and Congressmen Wu and Blumenauer came to my support for a more open and transparent government, but my experience with Oregon government makes me wonder whether local and state agencies will really be forthcoming with the information they possess.

Jerry Cressa

truth1 — Sat Dec. 5th 4:15p.m.
Reply to this comment

[ My Comment ]
Part one:
I tend to agree with Jerry Cressa for a few reasons.

Governments are often hostile to to citizen efforts, even City Council efforts, to get adequate information so as to understand issues and decisiins [oops, I meant decisions ]. If you are poor, the financial obstacles they raise can become significant. Recently, the City of Baker City wanted to charge me $108.00 for information that one might reasonably expect would be information they would have already collected to explain their efforts to enforce a property maintenance law. Later, they produced much of the information I requested in a police "dog & pony show" for the City Council.

Most recently, I asked for information concerning the public versus private benefit of the Baker City Municipal Airport, a $20 million dollar facility owned by Baker City, which, according to the latest reported budget, is using $85,288 this year from our General Fund, to help finance the airport. I requested information that would reflect how much use was related to obvious public interest like public safety and fire, and how much use was related to private use, such as recreational flying or charter flights. I was told "these records are not kept by the City. The Fixed Base Operator [ FBO ] does keep track of the number of flights, but most likely not the category (public, private, medical, etc.)." The FBO operator's wife confirmed that the record on this is not recorded. No record, no need to report. What can be done about that?
refugee — Sun Dec. 6th 8:57p.m.
Edit (you may edit your comment within 5 minutes of posting) [ I missed the deadline, sorry. ]

Part 2 [ of my comments ]:

More importantly, the city wanted to charge me to provide the names of those who lease publicly owned property subsidized by the Federal Government and city taxpayers. To avoid the charge, I asked the operator of the airport. The reason I wanted the information is that the average citizen has no idea whether a City Councilor or member of another administrative governmental body, like the Airport Commission, has a conflict of interest when making decisions that affect the airport. My thought was that we ought to know whether governing officials were using the airport for private use, such as leasing a hangar there. The FBO refused to give out the names of those sub-leasing city owned hangars that he leases from the city.

So, there is a question about what information is available from the private portion of public/private partnerships. There is another example locally involving a private non-profit corporation that receives the bulk of their funds from public dollars to administer a previously public function.

Please ask Attorney General Kroger to comment on these situations, and how a citizen may proceed to collect information that is perceived to be in the "public interest" from private contractors in charge of public assets.
Edit (you may edit your comment within 5 minutes of posting)
More info on The Oregon Public Records and Public Meetings Law, including the Public Records and Meetings Manual at:

The manual that previously had to be purchased has been made available by Attorney General Kroger at:

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