First-ever public records survey shows mixed bag for Oregon government transparency practices

A first-ever survey of Oregon public bodies sheds light on how well government of all sizes complies with public records law.

The results are a mixed bag, said Ginger McCall, the state’s public records advocate. The survey was sent to 132 bodies, a mix of state agencies, counties, cities, school districts, boards and special services districts. Ninety-seven responded and 35 did not.

“I was very pleased with the rate of response,” McCall said. “I was pleased to see that broadly agencies are taking this seriously.”

Public records law works to ensure the public has access to documents and information produced by public agencies, employees and officials. It can be anything from emails between the governor and her staff to police reports to documentation showing sexual abuse by a public school teacher. Journalists rely on public documents for their reporting, but the public has the same right to that information. The point of the survey is to see how well public bodies are following the law.

The survey asked government bodies how many records requests they received in 2018, how many they completed within the 15-day deadline, how many were completed within 60 days of the original request, how many fee waivers they granted and how much money they collected in fees for fulfilling the requests.

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The results were all over the board. Some, like the Oregon Medical Board, completed all 1,414 requests within the 15 days. Oregon State Police completed 800 of its 4,764 requests within the 15-day statutory deadline. OSP and the Department of Environmental Quality each received more than 4,000 requests ­— far more than any other agency.

Wendy Landers leads OSP’s records division, which is a team of five, though she said most work is done by two people.

“Our requests are so large,” she said. “We have to, of course, review them for exemptions and all of that.”

OSP has several divisions, and gets all kinds of records from the public in addition to media. Sometimes it’s a copy of a citation, sometimes it’s information from about the sex offender registry.

The requests are large, and often “weird,” said Capt. Tim Fox. OSP has to run things by partners like district attorneys to make sure the information won’t impact an ongoing case, and some requests, like for video, can take a long time.

“I think we do pretty well on public records given the inordinate amount we get,” Fox said.

Other state agencies, like the Department of Justice, reported they don’t track this information.

McCall said many agencies who struggle to fill requests on time say it’s a staffing issue, but she said that speaks to the priorities of the agency. She suggested uniform software to help agencies track this stuff.

“It seem like one potential area for improvement would be to procure and provide to state agencies at least some kind of tool to track and fulfill public records requests,” McCall said.

Fox said public records aren’t a low priority — he said despite it not being in his job description, he spends about 20% of his time working on records requests. It’s just a business decision. If you add to records staff, are you going to pull from sex offender registry staff, or troopers on the highway?

Many state agencies reported relatively little revenue from records processing, in part due to a statewide policy by the Department of Administrative Services that instructs agencies to waive 30 minutes of staff time at a minimum. Many agencies elect to waive processing fees completely, though some still did take in significant money.

OSP came in first with $59,000 in billing, the medical board reported nearly $24,000 and the Department of Environmental Quality had $20,000. All reported often waiving fees when asked by the requester. The Department of Human Services reported it does not track fees or fee waiver requests, but has created a work group to figure out how to do so.

McCall said the amount of money coming from fees should be investigated further, especially when it comes to police departments.

A handful of cities surveyed broke their fee revenue down to show how much was being charged by police departments. In Portland, $629,125 of the overall $767,659 was charged by the police. Medford only tracked fees charged by the police department, which amounted to $58,466.

The city of Salem reported 8,989 public records requests in 2018. The city completed 6,103 within 15 days, and charged about $155,000 to hand over the records (the city did not break the fees down by department). It received 46 fee waiver requests, and denied 11 of them.

The two other local bodies that were sent the survey were Marion County and the Salem-Keizer School District but did not respond. A Marion County spokeswoman said the email got lost in the shuffle, but the county now plans to fill out the survey and send it back.

A spokeswoman for Salem-Keizer said the district didn’t receive the survey.

In Malheur County, the Malheur County Soil & Water District responded that it processed one public records request in 2018. The county clerk’s office responded that it had “hundreds” of requests because it records real estate documents.

McCall said the survey will be sent out annually and will include new participants. She also supports continuing to send the survey to the bodies who already participated to see how their behavior changes over the years, as well as to the agencies who didn’t respond in the first survey.

McCall’s efforts with the survey is to better understand the public records landscape in Oregon, but she said she was also troubled by the 2019 legislature passing 20 new exemptions to state public records law. While she said none of the 20 stood out as egregious, she suggested a state with about 650 exemptions should look at condensing, rather than adding 20 more. 

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.