Oregon’s public records law could be getting some changes in the next legislative session. Ginger McCall, the state’s public records advocate, supports holding state agencies and other Oregon public bodies more accountable.
The proposal is to require public bodies to keep a list of public records requests, track their progress and make that information available to the public. It’s an improvement that could give the public a better way to see how well the public records law works.
Many public agencies already do something like it. For instance, Deschutes County has kept a log. Gov. Kate Brown’s office posts a log on its website. A formalized change in the public records law could make a log a requirement, specify the information that must be tracked and compel the posting of the information on a website.
We have experienced a striking variability between public agencies in records requests. Some of it is related to the information requested. If the information is going to be “good news,” they can’t wait to get it to you. If there’s a hint that an agency may have done something wrong, we’ve learned to expect delays or legal fees that will make the request prohibitive.
Public records tracking could also specifically expose how well agencies are complying with a new requirement: Public bodies are supposed to acknowledge requests in five business days and supply the documents within 10 business days of that acknowledgment. When we requested documents from the Oregon Department of Human Services earlier this year related to its foster care program, the agency failed to supply the documents within 10 days of the acknowledgment. We requested the documents and received an acknowledgment on May 21. We received the documents on July 5. Internal emails show DHS did not want to release the memo it wrote that answered our questions. There’s some government transparency!
The change in the law that McCall supports won’t prevent things like that from happening. It might make it more clear when agencies do it.