HASSO HERING

A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Public records too hard to get

Written March 16th, 2015 by Hasso Hering
Sunshine falls on the Capitol, but not always on Oregon public records,

Sunshine falls on the Capitol, but not always on Oregon’s public records,

In Oregon we’ve had a public records law since 1973. It says that every piece of writing and other information in the hands of state and local governments is a public record, and with certain exceptions the public has a right to see them all. But by now the exceptions are legion. Sometimes getting particular records is harder than pulling teeth, and more expensive too.

Yes, you can easily see routine records like budgets, labor contracts and agendas of public meetings. But, for example, emails revealing the background of agency decisions benefiting certain individuals or companies — those are much harder and sometimes impossible to get. Agencies will respond to requests with a demand for fees intended to cover the expense of finding the records and reviewing them.

After all, there are hundreds of exceptions to the law on public access, and in a big request, each item has to be checked and possibly redacted. As a result, getting records now in many cases may be harder than before the public records law was passed in reaction to the Watergate scandal.

Before that time, I once waltzed into a small town’s local welfare agency and looked through the names of everybody getting a then-new form of public assistance, and while the clerk looked at me sideways, nobody tried to stop me. (It was some kind of a news-related stunt, and nothing came of it. The story didn’t pan out.)

Part of the problem today is our obsession with what passes for privacy. Even the city of Albany, which works hard at transparency, allows applicants and members of city commissions and boards to conceal their addresses and phone numbers on city paperwork.

Another problem is the sheer mass of public records. Albany has published what must be thousands of pages of financial and other information online, but answers to specific questions — like, for example, who in which department was paid the largest sum for overtime in 2014,  and what was that person’s total compensation? — still are not readily available or easy to obtain.

The answer to easier and more complete access lies in more technology. Local and state governments could acquire information systems, or rig the ones they have, so that every little bit of information they possess and that is supposed to be public is in fact available to anyone who wants to call it up. That would include emails. A citizen could access the system in a read-only way, type a key word and be deluged with all the emails that contain the word. No more need to file requests, and thus no fees.

Until that happy day arrives, for crucial inside information on how government really works, the public often has to rely on the insider who passes on what others would like to stay hidden. While Oregon works to improve public access via changes in the law, as Governor Brown and others have proposed, let’s also encourage the timely leak. Without judicious leaks, the public would know even less than it does. (hh)



5 responses to “Public records too hard to get”

  1. Bob Woods says:

    Your missive is quite right in many ways. Technology can provide an answer, and the cost to do that is pretty high upfront, even though the ongoing costs are minimal.

    The biggest part of that cost is one of the things you pointed out: the need to go through existing documents to redact things that are required to be secured.

    An example that came up once dealt with simple purchase orders. You would think that would be easy.

    But in one case, it was found that a purchase order for the costs associated with random drug testing of employees included the names of employees being sent in that month. The person filling out the order never thought about whether the names of the employees needed to be included (they did not), it was just another PO in a stack that needed to be done.

    ORS 192.505 exempts from disclosure “Information of a personal nature such as but not limited to that kept in a personal, medical or similar file, if public disclosure would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy, unless the public interest by clear and convincing evidence requires disclosure in the particular instance. ” HIPPA from the Feds also protects medical records. If that information were released it could be lawsuit heaven for someone.

    As best as I remember from a few years ago the cost for a software license to make a web available search of the document system started at around $35k. That only was for the software license, and did not include server and other IT costs that might arise.

    On top of that begin the costs of performing redactions, record by record, where needed. Things like old payroll records, that had the employee SSN on them might pop up for anyone who did a keyword search using “SSN”, “social”, security” or “number”. 200 employees, 1 record a month over, say 10 years amounts to 24,000 records. Add in e-mail and all other documents over 30 years and the numbers get astronomical pretty fast.

    I fully support you in your quest. I know Wes and the senior staff support transparency explicitly. As you point out Albany has gone a lot further than most. But the costs associated with getting to the level of transparency we all would like to see are real and substantial.

    Every year the council has to grapple where to best use the money available.

    • Thanks for this illustration of the difficulties and costs. I’m thinking that the need for privacy protection ought to be considered up front when public records as prepared and stored. Knowing that certain records are supposed to be publicly available, an agency should take care not to clutter them with protected or privileged information. That goes especially for SS numbers. Seems to me their use should be banned for anything other than Social Security matters. (hh)

      • peg richner says:

        That’s a very good suggestion. Don’t include such private information in the first place tho I suspect that would be easier said than done.

  2. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Yes, some records are easily hidden if the city wants to erect barriers.

    For example, about nine months ago I requested public records from the city about two failed urban renewal districts that the city evidently closed down early. The city’s apparent reason for shutting down the URD’s early was due to the financial impacts on the other taxing districts.

    The city wouldn’t give me the info until I paid a “research” fee. What a crock. In my opinion, they manipulated the public records law to hide an embarrassing public record from the public. They were successful too. I refused to play the game and pay the fee.

  3. peg richner says:

    Thank you for this Hasso. Whenever I read a D-H article involving a city, county, or state public servant, I’d like to see his or her salary included in parenthesis right after their name. I realize salary doesn’t include all the other perks given over to such “servants,” but at least it would be a starting point to achieve that vaunted “transparency” that all say they support. Also, why not uncover all redactions after a period of time, say five years? National Security surely can’t be used as a cover to avoid such transparency.

 

 
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