When The Observer and other newspapers request access to information from the government, it sometimes hits the Wall of No.
Public records are part of the regular diet of newsrooms. But some public bodies throw up tall hurdles — usually in the form of big expenses — to block access to those records. Records that took public money to produce.
Back in 2018, for example, reporter Jackson Hogan with The Bulletin, sister paper to The Observer, asked the Bend-La Pine Schools for a list and price of all apps and textbooks bought for student iPads, specifically those in use. About a month later, the district told him the cost of providing the information would be $2,000.
Eight district staffers would apparently have to work a total of 18.5 hours to pull the information. Then a lawyer with the High Desert Education Service District would have to work six hours at $115 an hour to review the information and redact anything necessary. The district offered to give The Bulletin 50% off and charge $1,000. Still, prohibitively pricey for The Bulletin and other newspapers.
Oregon House Bill 2485 seeks to enshrine 50% off for journalists in law. It requires state agencies to reduce public records request fees by 50% if the request is made in the public interest. It requires state agencies to entirely waive fees if a public records request is in the public interest and narrowly tailored. And it requires requests made by members of the news media to be treated as in public interest.
State Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, is sponsoring the bill. She introduced it on behalf of the Society for Professional Journalists.
We certainly appreciate the sentiment. But sometimes 50% is no deal. The cost still can be the Wall of No.
News media is not defined in the bill. That can be tricky. Maybe The Observer or The Bulletin would easily qualify. What about a person who diligently tracks and regularly writes about education policy on a blog? Is that person a member of the news media? Are they acting in the public interest?
As much as we like the idea of getting 50% off, Oregon’s public records law is Oregon’s “public” records law. The news media can play a critical watchdog role and help spread information. It just seems unfair that a member of the public could be charged double for the same record as a journalist. The member of the public has just as much right to it under Oregon law, not just as much right at twice the cost. And by charging journalists half the cost, the costs of providing information to other members of the public would presumably go up, because they would be subsidizing the work of journalists.
More than 40 bills in play this legislative session aim to change Oregon’s public records laws. Some seek to block disclosure of information to the public. Some seek to make disclosure easier. We are flattered the intent of HB 2485 is to help journalists tear down the Wall of No. But all Oregonians have the right to know what their government is doing.
HB 2485 is scheduled for a public hearing on Thursday. Feb. 18, in the House Rules Committee.