Gov. Kate Brown made a pledge to Oregon citizens when she was inaugurated that her administration would put a priority on transparency.
That was February 2015. Brown, the former secretary of state, had just ascended to the governor's seat after the resignation of John Kitzhaber, who was wrapped up in allegations of improper influence-peddling. At the time, the governor's office was awash in a backlog of requests for public records that might shed some light on the allegations. The office's response to those requests was, shall we say, a tad sluggish.
Two years later, partially in response to the Kitzhaber affair, lawmakers passed legislation that represented the first significant step forward in generations for the state's public records law. Among the changes: requiring most governmental bodies to respond to records requests within 15 days. Governmental entities have 15 days to hand over requested records or to offer a legal reason why they're being withheld. After decades of backsliding on public records, the law was a victory for people who believe that government works best when its work is carried out in public.
But the Legislature, paying heed to pleas from smaller governmental entities that they don't always have the resources to respond to documents requests, inserted a broad exemption into the law: Oregon governments can take longer than the 15 days if it would be "impracticable" to process requests in a timely fashion because "of the volume of public records requests being simultaneously processed by the public body.” They also can take more time if the employee who normally would handle the public records request is out of the office.
It's important to remember the sort of government offices that lawmakers had in mind when they were considering this exemption: They were thinking about offices that almost are forced to shut down when just one or two employees are on vacation or ill. And Oregon has a number of these lightly staffed governmental offices.
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Now, consider a news story that ran over the weekend in The Oregonian: The newspaper reported that Gov. Brown's office now is among those governmental entities that says it's unable to process records requests within the 15-day deadline. In some cases, the newspaper reported, the governor's office is taking months to respond to requests.
In case you're wondering, the governor has nearly 70 people on her staff, The Oregonian reported. But most of those public-records requests are funneled through just one person, Emily Matasar, Brown's government accountability attorney. Matasar recently has been saying that it could take her at least nine weeks total to respond to some requests.
Brown's office also says it's dealing with an unusually high volume of records requests these days, and points to three specific events driving those requests: recent protests in Portland, the walkout of Republican senators during this year's legislative session and, ironically enough, the resignation of Ginger McCall, the state's first public records advocate. McCall said her resignation was prompted by what she called improper pressure from the governor's office, and argued that the records advocate should be insulated from that kind of political pressure.
We have no reason to doubt the governor's office when it says it has an unusually high number of pending records requests. But here's the deal: According to the state's updated manual on public records, the exemptions to the 15-day rule are intended to apply either to very small governmental bodies or in unusual circumstances. "Public bodies with the resources to adequately staff its public records requests are expected to do so," the manual says.
If the governor's office is swamped with public records requests, it has the wherewithal to reassign staffers or even could hire an extra staffer or two. Such a move would demonstrate that the governor is serious about following the spirit of the state's public records laws — and would put some welcome muscle behind what increasingly seems like an empty pledge. (mm)