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Many agencies ignore requests in first-ever study held by the state's public records advocate

A first-ever survey of Oregon public bodies has shed light on how well governments of all sizes comply with public records law.

The results were a mixed bag, said Ginger McCall, the state's public records advocate. The survey was sent to 132 bodies, a mix of state agencies, counties, cities, school districts, boards and special services districts: 97 responded, while 35 did not.

"I was very pleased with the rate of response," McCall said. "I was pleased to see that, broadly, agencies are taking this seriously."

Public records law works to ensure the public has access to documents and information produced by public agencies, employees and officials. It can be anything from emails between the governor and his or her staff to police reports to documentation showing sexual abuse by a public school teacher.

Journalists rely on public documents for their reporting, but the public has the same right to that information. The point of the survey is to see how well public bodies are following the law.

The survey asked government bodies how many records requests they received in 2018, how many they completed within the 15-day deadline, how many were completed within 60 days of the original request, how many fee waivers they granted and how much money they collected in fees for fulfilling the requests.

Variety of results

Results were all over the board. Some, like the Oregon Medical Board, completed all 1,414 requests within the 15 days. Oregon State Police completed 800 of its 4,764 requests within the 15-day statutory deadline. The OSP and the Department of Environmental Quality each received more than 4,000 requests -- far more than any other agency.

Wendy Landers leads OSP's records division, which is a team of five, though she said most work is done by two people.

"Our requests are so large," she said. "We have to, of course, review them for exemptions and all of that."

OSP has several divisions and gets all kinds of records requests from the public in addition to media. Sometimes it's a copy of a citation, sometimes it's information about the sex offender registry.

The requests are large and often "weird," said Capt. Tim Fox. Oregon State Police has to run things by partners like district attorneys to make sure the information won't impact an ongoing case and some requests, like for video, can take a long time.

"I think we do pretty well on public records given the inordinate amount we get," Fox said.

Other state agencies, like the Department of Justice, reported they don't track this information.

McCall said many agencies that struggle to fill requests on time say it's a staffing issue, but added that speaks to the priorities of the agency. She suggested uniform software to help agencies track this stuff.

"It seem like one potential area for improvement would be to procure and provide to state agencies at least some kind of tool to track and fulfill public records requests," shel said.

Fox said public records aren't a low priority; despite it not being in his job description he spends about 20 percent of his time working on records requests.

It's a manpower decision because if the agency add to its records staff it must pull that personnel from another department, such as sex offender registry staff or troopers on the highway.

Tracking fees

Many state agencies reported relatively little revenue from records processing, in part due to a statewide policy by the Department of Administrative Services that instructs agencies to waive 30 minutes of staff time at a minimum.

Many agencies elect to waive processing fees completely, although some still did take in significant money.

The state police came in first with $59,000 in billing, the medical board reported nearly $24,000 and the DEQ had $20,000. All reported often waiving fees when asked by the requester. The Department of Human Services reported it does not track fees or fee waiver requests, but has created a work group to figure out how to do so.

McCall said the amount of money coming from fees should be investigated further, especially when it comes to police departments. A handful of cities surveyed broke down their fee revenue to show how much was being charged by police departments. In Portland, $629,125 of the overall $767,659 was charged by the police. Medford only tracked fees charged by the police department, which amounted to $58,466.

The city of Salem reported 8,989 public records requests in 2018. The city completed 6,103 within 15 days and charged about $155,000 to hand over the records (the city did not break the fees down by department). It received 46 fee waiver requests, and denied 11 of them.

The two other local bodies that were sent the survey were Marion County and the Salem-Keizer School District, but they did not respond. Spokeswomen for each body said they did not receive the survey.

McCall said the survey would be sent annually and would include new participants.

She also supports continuing to send the survey to the bodies who already participated to see how their behavior changes over the years, as well as to the agencies who didn't respond in the first survey.

McCall's efforts are designed to better understand the public records landscape in Oregon, but she said she also was troubled by the 2019 Legislature passing 20 new exemptions to state public records law.

While she said none of the 20 stood out as egregious, she suggested a state with about 650 exemptions should look at condensing, rather than adding more.

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