Editorial: Government transparency should be cost of doing business

Government records — whether they’re police reports, city contracts, emails from elected officials or state high school graduation grades — are public records. These documents and data are part of the work of city governments, school districts, and state agencies on behalf of the public.

They are also key to tracking how efficiently and ethically our governments operate. Unfortunately, those who are checking for government jobs may have a hard time finding them.

Senate Bill 417, created by the state’s Public Records Advisory Committee, takes aim at one of the biggest hurdles — the arbitrary and exorbitant fees government agencies demand to satisfy public records requests. The bill would direct agencies to waive fees for requests determined to be in the public interest unless “substantially detrimental to the custodian, or because the waiver would prevent the custodian from performing other functions for which the custodian is responsible.”

In other words, waivers will still be balanced against practical constraints on staffing and time. But importantly, prioritizing fee waivers marks a change of mindset, reinforcing the notion that transparency should be a regular cost of doing business for governments.

The bill also provides clarity and definition to a practice that often seems like a whim. It states that agencies can charge for searches, copies, and reviews of records; establishes processes for improving communication between agencies and requesters; and requires agencies to explain the fees they charge when requested by requesters.

“It really puts a solid foundation for the words ‘democracy’ and ‘transparency,'” said Emily Harris, a longtime journalist who chaired the committee’s legislative group that developed the proposal for the past year committee.

First, let’s acknowledge that our editorial board is entirely biased towards disclosure and fee waivers. Our news organizations would certainly benefit from not having to pay thousands of dollars each year for records that help us hold all levels of government agencies accountable. Second, we should also reveal that one of the committee appointees, Steve Suo, was a longtime Oregon editor married to editorial board member Laura Gunderson. But this bill is critical — not so much for companies like ours that can and do pay these fees — but for smaller organizations that lack the resources.

As we learned from the recent closure of the Medford Post-Tribune, local news organizations here and across the country are struggling to stay afloat amid prolonged industry-wide turmoil. But local scrutiny, whether it’s continued coverage of drought and water crises in the Klamath Basin, falling high school graduation rates at some schools in La Grande or an investigation into the Bend supermarket shooting, depends on access to public information . Exorbitant fees prevent an agency of any size from pursuing stories that contribute to the public’s understanding of how its government works.

Among the examples sent to the committee for consideration: Lincoln County tried to charge the Newport News-Times $1,750 for documents related to a dispute that unfolded in public view between the district attorney’s office and the county board — even becoming a County committee meeting packed with agenda items. In Deschutes County, the circuit court abruptly reversed its longstanding practice of posting search warrants in electronic court records accessible to journalists. When The Bulletin filed its search warrant request from the previous year, reporters were told the judge would first spend $33,975 reviewing it. These allegations can block a review before it even begins.

The bill represents a solid compromise among diverse groups representing the government, news media and public opinion. While some may argue about one or the other of these elements, the bill does an admirable job of achieving a workable structure that promotes clarity, consistency, and fairness.

Only one member of the Public Records Board, which represents the state’s largest union of public employees, voted against the proposal. One of her concerns is that the language in the bill assumes that the news media’s request is made in the public interest, without similar consideration being given to other organizations or individuals. But there’s nothing stopping requesters from arguing that the information they seek is also in the public interest. The bill simply recognizes the unique role that the news media plays in informing Oregonians of the myriad of issues each day. In fact, their existence depends on serving the public interest.

Now, SB 417 introduced by Senator. Rep. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, who serves on the Public Records Committee, is a member of the Senate Rules Committee and has no hearings scheduled. It’s still early, and it doesn’t face any immediate deadlines against which it must move forward. But at the same time, it’s one of hundreds of Senate bills introduced this session. While elected officials often talk about the importance of transparency in campaign speeches, it’s rarely seen in practice.

Transparency builds trust—in policing, education, and across government. Elected officials who want to stick to their rhetoric should show it this session by pushing SB 417 forward and giving the bill – and the public – the “yes” vote it deserves.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

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Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. The editorial board members are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.

Board members meet regularly to determine our institutional position on issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can provide clarity and influence forthcoming decisions in the public interest. Editorials are commentary articles, so they are different from news articles.

If you have any questions about the opinion section, please email opinion editor Helen Jung, or call 503-294-7621.

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