The Gazette-Times suffered a setback this week in its efforts to obtain a complete set of payroll records from Oregon State University along with explanatory information about OSU’s compensation database.
Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson on Wednesday ruled against an appeal filed Jan. 8 by the G-T in conjunction with OSU student journalist Megan Campbell and her former adviser, Kate Willson.
The initial request sought payroll information on all university employees — including student workers — from 2008 to 2013. It asked for the records to be provided in electronic form along with data dictionaries and record layouts so the information could be interpreted clearly and accurately.
OSU officials had offered to provide compensation data for all employees except student workers, arguing those records must be kept secret under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA.
The university also balked at providing the data dictionaries and record layouts, contending that information is proprietary data belonging to Ellucian, the software company that created the Banner database OSU uses, and that releasing it would be a breach of contract and a violation of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. OSU also argued that data dictionaries and record layouts are exempt from disclosure under provisions of the Oregon Public Records Law intended to protect computer programs and trade secrets.
For the most part, the district attorney sided with OSU.
In a two-page letter explaining his decision, Haroldson called the dispute over access to data dictionaries and record layouts “a highly technical argument” but said he found OSU’s position more persuasive and ruled in favor of the university based on the computer program exemption. However, he added, “I do not reach OSU’s contention that the information is a trade secret.”
Haroldson did agree to order OSU to waive its proposed fee of $147 for providing the nonstudent compensation data, saying it met the public interest test in state law.
But he made no ruling on whether the university was justified in withholding student pay records, saying the appeal did not explicitly ask him to order OSU to release that data.
Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for university relations and marketing, reiterated the university’s offer to supply data on nonstudent employees and said it would not try to charge for them.
“We’ll comply with the district attorney’s ruling and waive the fees,” Clark said.
The Gazette-Times and its fellow petitioners are weighing their options, including whether to appeal Haroldson’s decision to the Benton County Circuit Court or to file an amended records request with OSU.
Original request filed in October
Willson filed the original request in October, when she was employed as a student media adviser at OSU, to gather data for a workshop on computer-assisted reporting. The Gazette-Times and Campbell, the managing editor of the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer, later signed onto the request to glean information for news stories.
University officials told Willson that she couldn’t request the records as an OSU employee because, as an agent of a public body, she does not meet the definition of a natural person in the Oregon Public Records Law, although she could request the information as a private citizen. She also was reprimanded for filing the request jointly with a student journalist on the grounds that students should do their own work.
The Gazette-Times published an article about the dispute on Dec. 29. Willson has since submitted her resignation to OSU and is now pursuing the public records appeal as a freelance journalist. She starts a new job with Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper in February.
Willson, who has extensive experience in computer-assisted journalism, says the database is too big and complex to understand without the kind of information contained in data dictionaries and record layouts, or at least a complete list of field names and an explanation of the data they contain, which OSU has not offered to provide.
She also points out that she offered to meet with a university information specialist to discuss how that information could be provided without compromising the software license. That would also have allowed her to narrow her request, possibly saving time and effort for OSU.
As an example, Willson says she requested comparable payroll data from the city of Corvallis, which provided a complete list of field names and an explanation of what each field contains after a city information specialist met with her.
OSU officials, however, declined to have such a discussion, Willson said.
“It’s such a simple conversation,” she said. “We could have come to some agreement on how to get the information.”
Nor should student payroll data be considered protected information under FERPA, Willson argued.
“If I’m a student and I want to see my education records, nobody’s going to hand me a copy of the compensation database,” she said.
Gazette-Times editor Mike McInally said the newspaper pursued the appeal in order to protect the public’s ability to get meaningful access to public records in a usable electronic form, as he believes the law allows.
“We think it’s important that interested members of the public be able to access this information in a format they can use and analyze and draw conclusions about compensation at Oregon State University — and, really, any public entity,” McInally said. “We believe that’s the key issue at play here.”