Release of Chief Bush records imminent


Investigative report is exempt from disclosure, but can be released if it serves the public interest

Before Prineville Police Chief Eric Bush was fired last week, interest in the details of his paid leave and subsequent investigation had escalated significantly.

As City of Prineville officials and staff kept quiet on the matter, multiple media outlets turned to public records requests to obtain information that would shed light on the situation.

The requests were ultimately denied by the city, prompting an appeal to the District Attorney that ultimately proved successful. The records will consequently be disclosed in the near future.

As with all public records requests, the ones made regarding the Chief Bush case are subject to laws that govern what records can be disclosed. The system is regulated by state statutes that include certain exemptions as well as laws regarding response time to requests, cost, and steps to be taken if requests are refused.

Regarding the disclosure of records, Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins said that all records created by a public body can be disclosed unless they are exempt according to Oregon Revised Statute 192.501. The exemptions include trade secrets, information on an ongoing criminal investigation, and information relating to the appraisal of real estate, as well as “a personnel discipline action or materials or documents supporting that action.”

“They can deny the public records request if it falls within an exemption,” Vitolins stated. She went on to note that it does not require the public body to keep the information private. If they choose to, they can legally release exempted records.

While that is the case, releasing exempt information can put the public body in a compromised position. Vitolins cited the personnel exemption as an example.

“Arguably, you could (release the record), but the problem is you have that employee there and that person has some sort of interest in that as well. There might be litigation that follows if they don’t exempt that record," said Vitolins.

If a public body denies a records request, the requesting party can appeal the decision. Vitolins is charged with reviewing denials by all local government bodies other than elected officials.

“I essentially make the decision,” she said, adding that she tries to work with both parties while deciding the fate of the request.

If she feels the record should be disclosed, she will order the public body to release it, but if she does not, the denial is upheld at which point the requesting party can appeal to the county circuit court. Like other legal cases, public records denial appeals can go all the way to the Supreme Court level.

In situations where a request is granted by the public body, state law also has specific guidelines that govern how much that entity can charge for the records and how long the requesting party should have to wait to receive them.

“Public agencies may charge a fee to recover the cost of fulfilling a records request,” said Michael Kron with the Oregon Department of Justice. “An agency cannot charge more than $25 without first providing an estimate. A public agency may require that you pay the estimated cost up front. You also have the right to ask for the fee to be waived or reduced because it is in the public’s interest to release the records.”

Regarding response timelines, Kron said that the public is entitled to inspect non-exempt records as promptly as a public body can reasonably make them available. Typically, most requests can be fulfilled in 10 days, but there are exceptions.

“How quickly ... depends on factors like the specificity of the request, the volume of records requested, the staff available to respond to the records request, and the difficulty of determining whether the records are exempt from disclosure,” he added.

Denial appeals, on the other hand, are held to a more rigid time limit. Vitolins and other district attorneys throughout Oregon are given seven days to respond to an appeal.

Although the city denied public records requests related to the Bush investigation, denials and subsequent appeals are rare in Crook County.

“I think the reason for that is when a public body gets a public records request, they generally communicate with the person,” Vitolins said. “What is it you really want? Do you want every single minute that we have taken for the last 10 years, or do you want it on this topic?”

She added that Oregon is typically more transparent than other states when it comes to public records disclosure.

“Oregon is very good about leaning toward disclosing everything and our exemptions are pretty narrow,” Vitolins said. “There is just no argument, unless it’s within a specific exemption, why any public body should keep anything secret. I feel strongly about that.”