JOURNALISTS from competing news outlets found one common cause this month: pushing Oregon for a more open public records law and more enforcement against the agencies that try to block access.
In Oregon, almost all documents that are compiled thanks to your tax dollars (like police reports, emails from the mayor, and state employee salaries) are supposed to be public. But steep fees, intentional delays, and hundreds of exemptions mean public records are often kept behind locked file-cabinet doors.
As part of a national Sunshine Week to advocate for freedom of information, the Oregon branch of the Society of Professional Journalists compiled complaints of records abuse and held a forum on open government at the Multnomah County Central Library last week.
The idea behind a public records law is simple: Anyone can file a request with a public agency (like the police, mayor's office, or school district) to get a specific file. That agency has to respond "as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay." Some public agency records, like medical files and disciplinary actions, are kept private, but most are public and must be released if it is within the "public interest."
Actually getting agencies to send potentially damaging information over to critical journalists, however, can be a bumpy process. Some agencies charge large fees for the staff time it takes to compile requested files. Others take months or even years to fill requests. A statewide audit in 2005 showed that agencies refused to release public records in 28 of 178 requests, or about 16 percent of the time.
Instead of ensuring simple, open access to public records, Oregon's existing sunshine law contains dense exemptions and conditions, which are often a hurdle to access. For example, the attorney general's manual on public records and open meeting laws spans 465 pages. When Oregon passed its public records law in 1973, there were only 50 exemptions to the law. Now there are over 427.
"Every legislative session, different interest groups try to go down to Salem and carve out exemptions," says Therese Bottomly, managing editor of the Oregonian. Bottomly recently did the legwork on taking Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU) to court to open up their records. In that case, the Oregonian became interested in people whose bodies are donated to science, after a transient man died and wound up in the OHSU medical lab before his relatives had been contacted.
"We wanted to know, how often does that happen?" says Bottomly. After a court battle, a judge ruled that it is in the public interest to release the names of people whose bodies are donated to science.
Bottomly says, "In Los Angeles, the coroner posts these names on its website automatically," a system of transparency that Oregon, currently, can only aspire to.
One of the weakest points of Oregon public records law is that going to court is the only avenue for obtaining a record if an agency refuses to open its files. Media outlets (especially freelance reporters) do not have the budgets to hire lawyers for lengthy court battles.
Reporter Christian Gaston (now at the Forest Grove News-Times) faced that problem several years ago when he was working on a story about alleged sexual assault on the Portland State University campus. Students had written damning accusations against a male student on the walls of campus bathrooms, but neither campus police nor Portland police would release their reports detailing several alleged victims' complaints. Gaston thought he could argue that there was significant public interest to justify releasing the files, but with no attorney and no media outlet backing him, he had to drop the story.
"It was infuriating. Here this information was on every bathroom wall and I couldn't report on it," says Gaston.
Attorney General John Kroger has said he's committed to creating more transparent government in Oregon. This year, his office has taken small but significant steps, building a website (oregon.gov/transparency) to post public information like state budgets, and hiring a go-to staffer for public records questions. The website is one example of how the office is trying to figure out how to transition freedom of information standards from the days of print and paper to modern times, when many files are only digital.
Of course not all people requesting records are responsible reporters.
"One of the big issues we have is keeping the law open for reporters while not allowing public records abuse," says Kroger's spokesman Tony Green, who has met with reporters several times over the past year to work on fixing the flaws in Oregon's records law. Especially in small towns, Green says he gets complaints of people requesting thousands of pages of documents to bog down government.
Kroger expects to bring further changes to the law, incorporating suggestions from journalists, before next year's legislative session.