Chalk one up for the Sierra Club and the people of Oregon.
A Coos County circuit court judge ruled recently that the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay cannot charge the Sierra Club more than $19,000 to collect records the environmental group seeks as part of its campaign to bar coal exports from Northwest ports. In fact, the judge said, port officials violated the club’s rights to free speech and association in their dealings with the Sierra Club.
The club and the port have been wrangling over the fees since 2011. Oregon law allows agencies to charge for gathering information; it also allows those agencies to waive fees when those requesting the information are acting in the public interest. In its ostensible effort to determine if the Sierra Club’s request was in the public interest, the port went way overboard.
It asked for everything from a list of the club’s directors, including places of employment and sources of income, to a list of donors to a list of club members who live within port district boundaries or who recreate “at or near the Coos Bay estuary.” It did so, it said, to determine if the documents the club sought would actually benefit the club, not the public, financially.
That was too much for Judge Paula Bechtold.
“The strong inference can be drawn that the port’s actual intent was to force the Sierra Club to fold its tent and go away,” she said in her Jan. 25 ruling. The port, she said, acted in bad faith in its dealings with the Sierra Club and two smaller environmental groups.
Bechtold recognized the argument for what it was — hooey. And, she said, the whole issue could have been resolved more quickly and cheaply had port officials been reasonable about the matter.
Oregon’s public records law works as intended only if those seeking information can get it in a timely fashion and at reasonable cost. Public agencies cannot thwart the law by attempting to discourage the public — be it the Sierra Club, The Bulletin or your next-door neighbor — by requesting information to which they are not entitled.