Ginger McCall, Oregon’s first public records advocate, left office Friday with some suggestions for her successor, the Public Records Advisory Council she headed, and lawmakers and other officials in Oregon. Public records, she says, should be obtainable at prices the public can afford.
She’s right, and while we disagree with one suggestion she makes, most of her proposals are right on the money. As she makes clear, the high cost of records requests can keep the public and the press from information they’re entitled to have.
That said, McCall would create two classes of records requesters. The first, including news organizations, nonprofit organizations and educational requesters, would pay only for the cost of duplicating requested records. All others would pay that charge, plus the cost of searching for requested records.
Oregonians would be better served by a system that charges at a single rate, either asking everyone to pay the cost of searching for records or charging no one for that service.
But, as McCall points out, state law allows public bodies to set their own charges, which vary wildly from agency to agency. Worse, she says, they also can charge attorney fees, sometimes $180 per hour or more, to have those records reviewed. The result is a pricetag that is beyond the reach not only of the public and media — it may well be beyond the grasp of many of the lawmakers who write public records bills in the state.
She’s right to suggest that the state scrap the allowance for attorney’s fees, then set specific, low fees, perhaps $15 per hour or 5 cents per page, to fulfill all requests.
In addition, McCall writes, Oregon should emulate the federal government when it comes to first-party requests for records related to themselves or a deceased family member, and charge lower fees to that group, particularly if they’ve been victims of crimes. She says charging those people exorbitant fees for records “is a clear and uncompassionate miscarriage of justice.”
McCall’s suggestions would bring order and uniformity to a system that lacks both. Lawmakers should take them to heart, preferably during the 2020 short legislative session.