Our Opinion: A modest fix for Oregon records law
Oregon legislators like to talk about government transparency and accountability. Making those things actually happen can be more difficult.
Here's a timely example.
A proposal pending in Salem would allow slapping modest fines on public agencies that fail to respond to public records requests by the deadlines imposed by the 2017 Oregon Legislature.
But critics say House Bill 2353 is premature.
Those deadlines, they note, didn't go into effect until 2018. More time is needed, they say, to see whether the new regulations work.
They're wrong. And here's the proof.
If you want to know how many kids at your local high school are on track to graduate on time — and how that compares to state averages — that's easy. Thanks to a 1999 law, that information is available online at the Oregon Department of Education website. Same goes for how many local students regularly skip school, qualify for free and reduced lunch and are up to date on their vaccinations.
But, let's say you want to know how many student athletes at your local school got a concussion last year and how that rate compares to other schools.
Well, you're out of luck.
A 2009 law requires public high schools and middle schools to document that athletes with concussions are medically fit to return to practice and play. And, those documents — with the student names redacted — are public documents.
So, it should be possible to tally the number of student concussions across the state.
It should be, but it isn't, as we learned in our 18-month investigation, "Rattled in Oregon."
Shortly after the implementation of the new deadlines for responding to public records, Lee van der Voo, our colleague at InvestigateWest, sent records requests to all 238 public high schools, asking for two years of their redacted concussion records.
Under the new law, schools had 15 business days to respond. Few did.
So, van der Voo followed up with calls and emails to all of them. That rattled loose a few more responses.
But, after months of prodding, reminding and cajoling, only about half the districts responded, despite multiple efforts to get their attention.
That's a shame. Because once districts did respond, van der Voo was usually able to work with them to get the public information. In some cases, that meant accepting a summary of data rather than copies of documents. In other cases, it involved some negotiation over what should and shouldn't be redacted.
Requests for records are often the start of a conversation with the person wanting the information and the person who has it. In many cases, the request can be narrowed to reduce the work required of the public agency. In other cases, the request can be handled over the phone — or withdrawn completely.
But none of that can take place when public agencies don't respond.
Keep in mind that few people requesting public records in Oregon have van der Voo's experience and tenacity. Given that she was able to get only half the school districts to follow the law and respond, it's a safe bet that the average Oregonian would not have received enough documents to draw any conclusions.
And that would be a shame because even with just half the schools responding, we were able to see a clear pattern: small and rural schools, which rarely have an athletic trainer, are not identifying concussions as often as larger schools with trained health care personnel on the sidelines.
That kind of information can help shape policies that keep our kids safe. But those kinds of insights won't be available when half of public agencies ignore the law and fail to respond to requests in a timely manner and face no consequences.
HB 2353 would change that. It would require negligent agencies to pay a $200 fine, grant a records fee waiver, or both. That modest motivation to respond to requests wouldn't fix all the problems with Oregon's public records laws. But it would help.
Lawmakers should not heed the call to postpone this move. The state's existing deadlines were thoroughly tested with Oregon high schools, and half of them failed.
We're confident lawmakers will find that report card unacceptable and support HB 2353.