The American Civil Liberties Union is defending a group of Central Oregon activists from the city of Bend, in a lawsuit initiated by the city over public records access.
Attorneys working with the ACLU of Oregon filed a counterclaim against Bend on Wednesday. The nonprofit provides legal representation when it considers civil liberties to be at risk.
Cooperating ACLU attorney Alan Kessler said the Bend case is about ensuring an essential function of government.
“Being able to see the records produced by our government is the only way we can hold it accountable,” Kessler said. “Our goal here is to be able to take away some of the obstacles that keep people from doing that.”
Bend wanted to charge several thousand dollars to compile the public records requested in January by activist Michael Satcher. The city argued that providing public access to thousands of police and city staff emails required more than 60 hours of work, while Bend normally budgets just two hours a week to handle public records requests. Last month, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel ordered the city to waive its fees.
Bend’s attorney Mary Winters said in a statement that the case is about undoing that order because of the example it sets.
“We think the district attorney substituted his judgment for the City’s, and created a new standard for this and future fee waiver requests that is contrary to state law,” Winters wrote.
Bend is already releasing the records in this conflict. They include over 6,000 emails that shed light on how city leaders communicated during the upwelling of mass movements last year, including Black Lives Matter and pro-Trump extremism.
“Instead of providing those records with a fee waiver as ordered by the district attorney, the city sued community member Michael Satcher and the Central Oregon Peacekeepers;” the ACLU of Oregon wrote Wednesday in a press release.
The Peacekeepers formed last year around street protests after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota. The group’s members have lately sought access to public records as a way to watchdog local law enforcement.
“We are just seeking the truth and the city is coming after us for it,” the group’s president, Luke Richter, said in the ACLU press release.
Satcher, who is not a lawyer, had been acting as his own attorney for the group’s records request.
“It feels great to have the ACLU on our side,” he said. “I’m looking forward to having our day in court.”
Winters, the Bend attorney, said the city is not seeking damages, but rather a declaration from the judge about how to interpret Oregon’s public records law.
“Because we process requests in a non-discriminatory manner, a new standard for fee waiver requests could mean City staff have to perform free work for other groups or individuals with very different political or social views from the Peacekeepers.” Winters wrote. “The issue of the standard is important enough to take to court and get a clear answer.”
If the city wins the case, the Peacekeepers could owe around $3,600 in fees to obtain the requested records, many of which have already been released. The ACLU’s counterclaim seeks to recoup its legal costs from the city.