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)