The ostensible purpose of Oregon’s public records laws is both simple and noble.
The 1973 law reads, in part: “Every person has a right to inspect any public record of a public body in this state. ...”
This is so sensible as to be obvious. Public agencies, including cities, counties and the state government, produce records using public dollars, and the public — which is to say, all of us — ought to be able to have a look at those records.
But the reality, as is so often the case when it competes against the conceptual, is neither simple nor noble.
Part of the problem is the rest of the above excerpt from the law, the words on the other side of the ellipsis: “... except as otherwise expressly provided by ORS 192.338, 192.345 and 192.355.”
Ah, yes. Exceptions. There are dozens of exceptions to the public records laws, and this list has been larded considerably over the past five decades. The law, as a result, has been tilting ever more in favor of public officials being able to keep records hidden from the public.
Some of the exceptions aren’t negotiable, like medical records or records prohibited from being released by federal law.
But many of the exceptions do not apply if the public interest requires disclosure in the particular instance. Investigatory information compiled for criminal law purposes, personnel discipline actions and investigations of public safety employees that do not result in discipline fall into this latter category — the public interest may require their disclosure, despite being conditionally exempt.
Grant County officials have used these conditional exemptions to block numerous requests from the Eagle for almost a year — despite multiple Grant County Sheriff’s Office employees being investigated and placed on paid administrative leave.
A sheriff’s deputy who has been paid more than $58,000 on administrative leave since March was arrested for driving drunk this weekend. The Eagle had to fight to get the county to release any records at all or even confirm that the employee was on leave months ago. Yet, despite repeated requests, the county still has not provided any information about why she was placed on leave.
Is that not in the public interest?
But even when public officials can’t use any of those exceptions as the legal bricks and mortar to put up a wall between the public and the records, there are other methods to withhold public records.
When the Eagle first requested the records in April, Sheriff Glenn Palmer said the county had some of the records requested but said a fee of $1,200 would be required before they would even search for them.
A situation happening in Malheur County is another troubling example.
The Malheur Enterprise newspaper in Vale, as part of its diligent coverage of Malheur County’s effort to build a multimillion-dollar industrial park, has requested public records related to the project.
Publisher Les Zaitz said, after paying a requested $300 fee for the records, Malheur County officials requested more money before agreeing to release the records.
Oregon’s public records laws provide for agencies to waive fees in cases when releasing the records serves the public interest. It’s difficult to imagine a topic more important to the public than how government officials are spending, or planning to spend, public dollars.
In part because public records laws lack significant penalties for public agencies and officials who use the law to obscure rather than to reveal facts, the sorts of stalling tactics that Grant and Malheur county officials employed are unfortunately common.
The Eagle will continue to push for the release of these records so we can inform the public how their public officials are spending public money, and we’re sure Zaitz and his staff at the Enterprise will do the same.
Our success will serve both as a testament to the importance of journalism, but also, sadly, as an example of how a well-conceived law has been gradually bastardized to the point that it too often serves the interests of public officials rather than the public.