Elected officials in Oregon have, by and large, a sweet deal when it comes to Oregon’s public records law. It’s time the Legislature closed the loophole that comes close to guaranteeing elected officials have nothing to fear from the law.
Ginger McCall, the state’s former Public Records Advocate, made the case for the change in her final report released days before she left the office on Oct. 11.
As the law now stands, if a government employee declines to fill a public records request, the seeker can appeal to the county’s district attorney free of charge.
If, however, the public official who denies the request is elected, then the person seeking the records has only two options. He or she can take the elected official to court or drop the case. All too often, the cost of taking the official to court is beyond the reach of those who need to see the records, whether they’re reporters or anyone else. And, when the money to sue is available, the time involved in getting a judgment may be so long as to make the information useless.
That’s what happened in Josephine County, when, in 2016, county commissioners decided all but the most innocuous records requests must be funneled through the county’s legal counsel, Wally Hicks. Hicks, as the only elected legal counsel in Oregon, could pretty much call the shots, then, when it came to public records, as could the commissioners themselves.
Hicks wasn’t shy about using his power, according to an article in the Grants Pass Courier. Hicks refused, for example, to release records about an elected official who was the subject of a workplace complaint. He also denied requests for information about complaints about marijuana grow sites.
Oregon lawmakers adopted the original public records law in 1973, and at the time it was one of the country’s most sweeping attempts to make the business of public officials available to the public. It’s difficult to believe those lawmakers intended to make records available only to the most well-heeled individuals and business.
Yet that’s what has happened, as McCall’s report notes. Lawmakers can, and should, close the elected officials loophole that keeps records out of the hands of too many Oregonians.