The recently completed State Integrity Investigation gave Oregon a failing grade for its policies pertaining to public records.
Every year state and local governments successfully process thousands of public records requests. But according to the report, there's little consistency or oversight to how information flows.
April Baer reports on how the issue came to a political head last year.
Oregon's public records laws don't just pertain to state agencies. They also govern the work of people like Pat DuVal.
She's the city recorder for Milwaukie, on the job 28 years. There are hundreds of offices like this one, in which city, county, university, school board, or other public employees field requests for information.
"We do probably, maybe a half-a-dozen public records requests during a week," DuVal says.
Some people want building permit questions and other kinds of real estate data. Others have questions about zoning or budget inquiries. DuVal also prepares volumes of data for the city's website.
"So many passwords! Drives me crazy."
There is no labyrinth library of file folders. Just DuVal and three others at desktop computers, thanks to a state pilot project that lets her store all the city's data on servers in Baker City. Which is good, DuVal says.
She laughed, "I hate filing!"
DuVal says, by far, most requests she gets are perfectly reasonable, and get filled quickly. But sometimes people make requests for huge files. She remembers one person looking for information about a proposed group home for a lawsuit.
"We had ten keywords to look for through everybody's mailbox."
That's everyone on the city's payroll.
"Probably took me a couple of weeks."
DuVal says Milwaukie's pretty lucky, having several staffers around to handle stuff like this. She's emphatic everyone has the right to public information. But the costs are real.
The conflict between access and cost has shaped the debate over how public entities respond to public information requests.
The State Integrity Investigation awarded Oregon a failing grade on thirteen points of Oregon law. The report was independently funded by Public Radio International and the Center for Public Integrity.
It compared the 50 states on attentiveness to potential corruption. Yes, Oregon citizens have some legal rights of access to information. But, the investigation notes, there are many exemptions to that right.
Processing fees can be high, and no one polices how long agencies take to fill requests.
Anyone trying to get information about sensitive subjects like what social workers say to their clients, or the addresses of potential university donors may have their work cut out for them.
Mark Riskedahl with the Northwest Environmental Defense Center has filed many public records requests over the years, primarily with agencies like DEQ and the Department of Agriculture. He says he's seen some progress.
He no longer has to pay to have a staffer present when he's reviewing some kinds of print records. But he sees plenty of room for improvement in the mechanisms governing public records and the discretion agencies have in filling requests.
"Certainly in my experience I found that really useful, to push the agencies to recognize there is this important element to their work. Sometimes they think that the public is just a pain in the ass, basically," Riskedahl says.
In 2009, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger embarked on an effort to overhaul Oregon's public records law. Last year the legislature considered a bill he proposed.
Senate Bill 41 would have created a shorter, ten-day basic timeline for governments to respond to most public records requests. It would have created a fee structure and imposed some caps on the fees public entities could charge.
Scott Winkels is a lobbyist who works for the League of Oregon Cities. He says the Attorney General's office didn't spend much time talking to the entities who have to deal with public records request.
"It was a very bizarre lobbying experience, for me and a lot of my colleagues," Winkels says. "Normally if you're going to pass a bill like that, you're going to form a coalition of people."
Winkels says the League had concerns about how the deadlines would affect members. The system has to work for big entities like Portland and Washington County, and also small, cash-strapped places like Baker City and Cave Junction.
After a few committee hearings, other stakeholders also became uncomfortable. Laurie Hieb, director of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers' Association says her group has a vested interest in reducing exemptions and speeding up the request process.
"As soon as all interested parties started analyzing and dissecting it, halfway throughout the session we felt like it was going in the wrong direction, and the current law was much better than the direction that the bill was taking," Hieb says.
Kroger acknowledges mistakes were made.
"I think the primary lesson I learned is a comprehensive bill was too complicated."
There are so many aspects of the public records law, he says, it was overwhelming, and tough to move through the legislature.
"The thing which amazed me is there's only one opponent to government transparency, and it's the government. Lobbyists for government agencies, like Metro, like the City of Portland fought against having a greater level of transparency," Kroger says.
Representatives of both Portland and Metro call that inaccurate. Both say the goal of reducing exemptions is very much in local governments' interest.
Randy Tucker is Metro's legislative affairs manager. He says, "Our record here at Metro on providing timely access to public records is beyond reproach. The concern we have is that the legislation that was proposed was really a response to isolated problems, yet would have imposed unreasonable costs across the state."
Kroger says it might take multiple sessions to accomplish the reforms one piece at a time.
To that end, both candidates vying to replace Kroger in the May primary say they're willing to pick up where Kroger left off.
Dwight Holton is a former federal prosecutor. At a recent Portland City Club appearance, he said he agrees timelines, fees and exemptions for public records need a reset.
"I would like to initiate an effort to achieve those three goals. I don't think it would take the same form as that bill. As Attorney General, I will want to spend a great deal of time with all the stakeholders. But you can do it. I'm quite confident you can," Holton says.
Candidate Ellen Rosemblum, a former appeals court judge, says she's particularly troubled by how many kinds of records still don't see the light of day.
"Maybe we can use modern technology a little more effectively so we can persuade our municipalities that it's not going to break the bank for them to do this. Perhaps we can even share the costs in some ways. It's scary to add yet one more thing to the plate of these broken budgets."
Both candidates have developed relationships with mayors in cities small and large, who've endorsed them. So they both claim to have the rapport they'll need to hammer out a deal, when the time comes to take another bite at public records.
On the Web:
More on SII's scoring for Oregon public information laws
More information about Attorney General Kroger's proposed reforms
Oregon Gets Low Marks For Integrity In Campaign Finance
How Well Does Oregon stack Up In Integrity Investigation?