Public Records

Rows of county records on microfilm sit in a drawer organized by dates in the Umatilla County Office of County Records in Pendleton.

Public agencies could pay a $200 fine for dragging out fulfilling public records requests.

The 2017 Oregon Legislature established a 15-day period for public agencies to deny, hand over or ask for more time to provide public records. House Bill 2353 would amend that to authorize the attorney general, district attorney or a court to fine public agencies $200 plus reasonable attorney fees for “undue delay” or failure to respond to requests.

The House Committee on Judiciary held a public hearing on Wednesday at the Oregon Capitol on the bill. The League of Oregon Cities, Association of Oregon Counties, and Special Districts Association of Oregon opposed the bill.

Scott Winkles, with the League of Oregon Cities, told the committee the league “isn’t interested in protecting someone who is blatantly, egregiously, and potentially criminally violating the public records statute,” but the bill lacks due process for determining if a public body is disregarding the 15-day period.

Rob Bovett, legal council for the Association of Oregon Counties, concurred and said the amendment is “too much, too fast,” and Oregon needs more time to find out if agencies are delaying requests.

Mark Landauer, with the Special Districts Association, said some of the lobbying group’s 950 districts are volunteer-run and lack staff to comply with the timeline. He also said the association still is training district volunteers and staff.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association also took a stand against the bill. District attorneys in Oregon have the authority to determine if a record from a local agency is public or not. Jeffrey Nitschke, deputy prosecutor with the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office, said HB 2353 would interfere in that work. He told the committee district attorneys should not be in the business of assessing fines and fees. Washington state, he said, gives that oversight to the courts.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, sponsored the bill. She serves on the judicial committee and also testified. She said while the 2017 Legislature established a timeline, public bodies still put off providing public records.

“This bill seeks to close that gap,” she said, and the $200 fine is a far cry from Washington, where the fine can be $100 per day for delaying.

Nick Budnick, for the Society of Professional Journalists, said Oregon law already shields tiny districts from the 15-day period and this bill would give “tiny teeth” to create accountability and let agencies know the legislature was serious when it reformed the public records act in 2017.

John Schrag, executive editor of the Pamplin Media Group, owner of more than 20 print and web publications in Oregon, told the committee the public records reforms from 2017 opened the door for Pamplin to partner with others to look at concussion data about student athletes. The study after 18 months found schools with athletic trainers are more likely to identify concussions, keep the student safe and safely return them to practice. But that was the only finding the work could report.

“The other data we could not get ... because of the 235 school districts, almost half of them failed to respond to our requests ... You don’t need to wait. Your law is not working,” he said.

The best responses came from the small districts, Schrag said, and the work involved a full-time investigative reporter, while parents trying obtain this information don’t have such resources.

Zakir Khan, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Rebecca Gladstone, with the The League of Women Voters of Oregon, also spoke for the bill.

The judiciary committee also held public hearings on HB 2430 to eliminate the sunset date of the Public Records Advisory Council and on HB 2431 to require state agencies to collect basic information about public records request. Ginger McCall, the state’s public records advocate, spoke in favor of both.

She said Oregon does not have much data on records processing, and the council conducted its first survey on that and will have results soon. She also said HB 2341 asks state agencies to provide basic data on what fees they collect for records, the number of public records requests they received during the preceding year and how many request remain outstanding. State agencies should already be tracking this data, she said, so providing it “is a pretty minimal lift.”

McCall earlier this year compiled a list of public records proposals. People may view that here: http://bit.ly/2XY0Twh

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