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Public records bills are a mixed bag

People seeking public records in Oregon get all kinds of abuse. Public agencies ignore them. Agencies overcharge them. Sometimes, agencies even sue requesters to stop from having to fulfill a request.

That’s not the way the state’s public records law is supposed to work. But that’s the way some public agencies choose to implement the law — especially when a requester is seeking information that could make the agency look bad.

Several bills in the Legislature propose changes in the law to improve it. Not all of them will.

Two would make things worse. House Bill 2345 would reduce the public record fees charged by state agencies to members of the news media by 50 percent. If a request is narrowly tailored, the agency would be required to waive any fees.

This would be great for members of the news media. But it’s the public records law, not the news media records law. The law is for any member of the public. The news media does not deserve a special discounted rate. The news media should pay or not pay the same amount as any other member of the public.

Senate Bill 609 would require that a requester tell a public agency how he or she intends to use the requested records. That’s no business of the government. It’s a public record. That means it’s the public’s information. Agencies could use the information from a requester to deny and delay requests. If a requester wants to disclose the information, that’s one thing. That may help in disputes over the costs of records or in disputes over why a record should be public. But the disclosure should not be required.

There are also two proposed changes in the law that could make things better. House Bill 2353 adds some teeth. It would allow the attorney general, district attorney or a court to award a penalty to a requester — and attorney fees — if a public agency fails to respond to a request or responds to undue delay. The bill does not put a dollar figure on the penalty.

For instance, last year the Oregon Department of Human Services put us through the public records ringer. We asked for details about how it was responding to a state audit that said the agency was guilty of “chronic management failures and high caseloads” that “jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.” After more than a month went by without details, we asked for emails related to our request for information. The agency had 15 business days under public records law to tell us what was going on. It did not. It did not face any penalty for failing to comply with the law. We did eventually get what we asked for. But should public agencies be able to violate the law without even a token penalty? We don’t think so.

Ginger McCall, the state’s public records advocate, has pushed for another change in Oregon law that in a way has taken shape in House Bill 2431. The bill requires state agencies to make public the number of requests it received, the number of requests unfulfilled and information about how much was charged.

Passing the bill will enable Oregonians to better understand how well the public records law works — or often doesn’t.