The Deschutes County clerk’s office recently charged The Bulletin $20 to share public records. The Bulletin, or any member of the public, should be been given the information for free.
In this case, Bulletin reporter Julia Shumway asked for the party affiliation of 23 of the 36 people who applied to fill a vacancy on the Bend City Council. She received the other applications after the clerk’s office had closed for the week. The council position is nonpartisan, to be sure, but a person’s political affiliation can give an observer a hint about his or her view of the role of government, including city government. And that’s important, for all sorts of reasons.
State law does allow agencies to charge for the gathering and copying of public records. It also allows them to decide whether to charge, and some agencies, including Bend-La Pine Schools, don’t start the meter running until after 30 minutes have ticked by.
We don’t know how long Shumway’s request took to fill, but the information should have been readily available along with other voter registration information.
Unfortunately, too many public agencies in Oregon view public records requests or the people requesting them as nuisances. Officials in those offices are more than happy to put obstacles, including bills for giving the public what it has a right to in any event, in requesters’ way.
It may be that some requests are, in fact, so complex that fulfilling them would cost an agency staff time it doesn’t have. For many, however, the bill that comes with a request appears to be little more than a way to persuade the requester to go away.