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DAs fall short in public records requests

Oregonians like to pride themselves on being leaders in such things as protecting beaches and imposing deposit fees on a variety of bottles. When it comes to transparency of government, however, we have nothing to brag about. Just ask a group of journalism students at the University of Oregon.

Early last year the students asked district attorneys in all 36 Oregon counties for copies of public records appeals filed with their offices. The DAs are the first stop in an appeals process that includes the Oregon Attorney General and, ultimately, the courts. Students also wanted copies of the DAs’ responses to those records and asked to have fees waived. That information, they argued, would give the public an insight into how well district attorneys carry out their duties under the state’s public records laws.

The district attorneys’ responses were surprising, though perhaps they shouldn’t have been. While Deschutes County’s John Hummel had no problem with accommodating the students, more than a few denied the requests, arguing they did not meet the public-interest test. Even more, while they agreed to send the records, failed to meet the deadline written into Oregon law in 2017: Agencies are supposed to acknowledge public records requests within five business days and, generally, respond to them within another 10. (Editor’s note: Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert met the deadline and produced the requested records.)

As for what does and does not meet the standard of what’s in the public interest, there is no “public-interest test” in Oregon beyond the DAs’ own judgment on the matter. In these cases, the DAs were being asked to judge their own refusal, a situation that seems odd, at best. At the same time, some DAs proposed charging students upwards of $1,000 for the records, though some reduced or waived the charges as discussions progressed.

Moreover, your chances of getting a public record upon appeal can depend on where you live. District attorneys in Multnomah County, and now Deschutes County, post their orders regarding public records on their websites. Hummel said he did so because the students’ request made him more sensitive to the notion of transparency in his office.

Things are different in Lane County. There, District Attorney Patty Perlow orders agencies to release records only about a quarter of the time, though that figure does not reflect cases that are resolved before a denial is issued.

Oregonians’ ability to see how their government, no matter at what level, operates, should not be limited by the county in which they live. Records in Lane County should be every bit as accessible as those in Multnomah or Deschutes, no matter what a district attorney’s view of the law is.

Lawmakers should be able to fix most of these problems easily, if they’re of a mind to. They can make it clear that Oregonians expect their district attorneys to understand and uphold the public records law, deadlines and all. They should recognize that some agencies set fees high as a way of discouraging requests, and deal with the problem.

Doing those things would not solve all the law’s problems, but it would surely help.