Grant County’s public records policy is problematic on several levels, and it certainly seems as if county officials are trying to make it more difficult for the public to see these public records.
The policy is not only unnecessary in most situations, it is also causing confusion and delays among county staff. Worst of all, county officials have routinely — and illegally — ignored records requests that were submitted following this policy, which is supposed to ensure county officials obey public records laws and treat everyone fairly.
The policy adopted late last year requires approval from the county court, or the county judge, before any county department can release any documents.
If you want to see a list of people who filed to run for office, the county clerk will now need approval from the court before she can give that out. If you need information about a Planning Commission decision, the planning director is going to have to ask before delivering it. If you want to see the county budget — you get the picture.
The problem isn’t that the county has a defined policy. The problem is that the county court is inserting itself between the public and public officials, even when it is unnecessary.
For years, the county clerk and treasurer have provided documents directly to the public without having to ask for permission. They are public records, after all.
If these public officials had a question about whether or not a document could be released, they could easily ask for guidance from the court or county counsel in that situation — while continuing to provide routine records they don’t have questions about directly to the public on their own without interference.
Now, however, they must be considered about retribution if they violate the county court’s policy, simply by providing public records to the public.
During a recent interview, a county official told us they could not answer questions we had because it might violate the public records policy. We pointed out that we already had the records and were merely trying to get an explanation of what they meant, and after some thought, the official agreed with us and answered the questions.
But the fear is real. County officials are afraid to discuss public business and answer questions, which has nothing to do with records requests, because of the county’s public records policy.
This should concern everyone. These public officials are doing public business, your business. They should be able to explain to anyone who asks how they are conducting business on behalf of the public — how they are spending your tax dollars. And when public officials won’t talk, or are afraid to talk, there is a serious breakdown in our system of open government.
Beyond that, though, these public records are your records. Oregon law states “every person has a right to inspect any public record of a public body in this state” except for certain, limited exceptions.
The county’s public records policy seems to ignore the underlying importance of public access to information about what government officials are doing. Instead, it seems as if they are purposely putting up red tape — more hoops to jump through — to make it more difficult for the public to stay informed.
If they don’t have anything to hide, why make access to records more difficult?
The worst part about the policy is that, after county officials have required us to fill out a form and wait for court approval, they haven’t been following through to fulfill those requests, as required by law.
Since May, the Eagle has submitted only three records requests to the county, and none have been fulfilled. Legally, the county is supposed to provide the documents or an explanation within 15 days. We’re still waiting on a credit card statement requested May 15; documentation related to COVID-19 county court labor expenses requested July 16; and tort claim notices requested Aug. 14.
By forcing the public to jump through hoops to request records and then by ignoring the law about fulfilling them, county officials are keeping public records from the public. By implementing a policy that causes county employees to fear explaining county business, the public is being further kept in the dark.
The county court members should remember they represent the public. More importantly, they should recognize that county records belong to the public.
Grant County should revise its unnecessary public records policy to make clear that county officials can provide nonexempt records directly to the public without delay or interference — unless they have a question about releasing the record.
The county court should make it very clear that answering questions does not, and cannot, violate the records policy so county employees can explain what is going on.
And the county should actually follow Oregon’s public records law.
Unless, that is, they have something to hide.