The ostensible purpose of Oregon’s Public Records Law is 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 some hundreds of exceptions to the Public Records Law, 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.
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. A situation happening in Malheur County is a troubling example of this.
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.
The Enterprise has already paid $300 for records the newspaper requested a month ago, according to publisher Les Zaitz. But on Friday, Malheur County officials, rather than release those records to the newspaper, asked for another $100. The county didn’t send an invoice with its request, Zaitz said.
The publisher said the Enterprise emailed the three Malheur County commissioners, along with other county officials, on Friday asking for an invoice. On Monday the county’s attorney told the Enterprise the county would release the records and send an invoice later.
The Enterprise has received donations totaling more than $3,000 from residents who support the newspaper’s efforts to publish thorough and accurate stories about Malheur County’s activities.
That’s heartening support. But it shouldn’t be necessary.
The Public Records Law provides 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 the Public Records Law lacks significant penalties for public agencies and officials who use the law to obscure rather than to reveal facts, the sorts of stalling tactics Malheur County officials employed are unfortunately common.
Zaitz and his staff at the Enterprise will no doubt continue to aggressively pursue the vital records necessary to inform the public about what its government is up to.
Their success will serve 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 it too often serves the interests of public officials rather than the public.