If Gov. Kate Brown is truly committed to government transparency, why is her government so brazenly designed for delay?
The Oregonian laid out the case recently. Brown signed a new law in 2017, putting the first real deadline into the state’s public records laws. Basically, government bodies have 15 days to turn over documents or they must cite a legal reason why they do not.
Brown’s office relies on exceptions to the law, sometimes taking months to comply with requests. Those exceptions were put into the law to help out small towns or smaller school districts who may not have sufficient staff.
Of course, any office is going to be deluged with work from time to time. Her office says it received a number of high volume requests in the last few months, including over the resignation of the state’s public records advocate and the Republican Senate walkout. But providing public information is one of the core responsibilities of her office. Brown should be expected to provide staff to meet the responsibility in a timely way, if she is honestly committed to transparency.
There are public agencies that make every effort to comply swiftly with the law. For instance, the editorial page staff routinely asks the city of Bend for public records. Some are more intricate requests, such as emails or text messages. There have been exceptions, but, in general, we get the records back within days.
Last year the editorial page had its own experience of a public records request getting the Brown treatment. A state audit found that the Department of Human Services had been “slow, indecisive, and inadequate” in fixing recurring problems in the foster care system. It wasn’t a secret. The state had been paying out millions in settlements for failing to protect children in its care.
DHS vowed to address the issues. We asked DHS for an update a few months later. DHS prepared a memo to answer our questions. It switched into delay mode. That was, in part, because Brown’s office wanted it to hold off releasing anything and roll it into a media campaign, according to internal emails we obtained later. Brown’s office was more interested in how the message would be received than in providing the public with timely information about how the state treats some of its most vulnerable children.
The recent resignation of the state’s public records advocate was just another symptom of a broader lack of commitment from Brown to government transparency.