A water supplier in Central Oregon has taken a newspaper to court rather than disclose the addresses of its top water users.
This month Avion Water filed a lawsuit against the Source Weekly after the alt-weekly based in Bend made a public records request for consumer information. The water company maintains that information is private.
Avion Water serves around 14,000 customers in Deschutes and Crook counties. In June, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel ordered Avion turn over water use records to the Source, but the company is now asking a judge to intervene.
The lawsuit stems from a May public records request submitted by Hanna Merzbach, a freelance reporter writing an article on water usage for the Source.
Merzbach asked the city of Bend, city of Redmond and Avion for street addresses for their top 15 water users in 2021, the number of gallons they used and the amount of money each customer spent on water that year.
Source Weekly Editor Nicole Vulcan said there’s plenty of public interest in this information, given the extended drought plaguing much of Oregon and the West.
“We, as many journalists in our community, feel that water is an important resource,” Vulcan said.
Avion rejected Merzbach’s initial request, stating it is not a public body and therefore not subject to the requirements of Oregon’s Public Records Law. The company also said the street addresses of its customers would be exempt from disclosure, even if Avion was a public entity.
Redmond and Bend did comply with the request, Vulcan said, adding that information provided by Bend revealed many water customers had large bills as a result of leaks. The Source has not yet published any articles on the area’s top water users.
After Avion initially declined to provide the records, Merzbach petitioned Deschutes District Attorney John Hummel’s office through an appeal process laid out in the law.
Hummel sided with the Source and ordered that Avion must release the records, because it is “the functional equivalent” of a public body, according to Hummel’s decision, meaning it would be subject to public records laws.
To support this, he cited that Avion currently has a franchise agreement with the city of Bend and is regulated by the Oregon Public Utility Commission. He also stated that Avion did not provide enough evidence that the addresses of its customers were exempt from disclosure.
“Because Avion failed to convince me that residential addresses of their water users constitute a type of personally identifiable information … I find that these residential addresses are not exempt from disclosure,” Hummel wrote in his decision.
Kyle Wuepper, Avion’s attorney in the case, said the company could not provide comment before OPB’s deadline.
Avion said in the lawsuit that it receives no financial support from any government agency and is in no way run by public officials.
Vulcan said the Source will be represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that provides free legal services in First Amendment cases.
Vulcan said that, while the paper is not financing its own defense, it still requires a significant amount of time for its small staff.
“This is requiring meetings and conversations, all while we’re trying to put out another newspaper every week,” she said. “It’s challenging, but these are the types of things journalists live for.”