The fight over public records in Douglas County may actually be one of the better things to happen to Oregon’s public records laws. It shows why the laws are important and how they can fail.
Douglas County commissioners spent at least $43,000 on lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., using federal money awarded to the county.
How was the money spent?
The Oregonian made three formal requests over four months, according to that paper. The county only accounted for $579.57. If the newspaper wants more, the county wants to charge it more than $1,900 to show how the public’s money was spent.
Such a high price tag is the same thing as saying no. Newspapers — or any other member of the public — do not have that kind of money available to get public information about expenses.
Douglas County commissioners arguably do have good reason to go to Washington, D.C. Counties like Douglas used to be big beneficiaries of federal timber harvest dollars. They would receive about one quarter of the revenue from timber sales on federal forests. When those harvests were cut back in part due to concern for endangered species, it undercut county budgets. Douglas County had to close its libraries in 2017, among other things.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, created a program in 2000 to help ease the transition for counties that had relied so heavily on federal timber revenue. Counties in Oregon have received more than $3 billion since the program was created in 2000. Most of that money has gone to schools.
The problem for Douglas and other counties is that the funding has sometimes been erratic and there has been interest in winding it down. Wyden and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, also a Democrat, have introduced legislation in the past to make the funding more permanent. Douglas County commissioners want that, too.
In Douglas County, commissioners have used some of those federal dollars to support making a video in support of salvage logging of burned forests. And they may have used it to make lobbying trips to D.C. to keep the money flowing.
Under Oregon law, public bodies are able to charge reasonable fees to pay for the expense or providing records. But when the fees effectively deny the public information about how tax dollars are spent, Oregon’s public records laws are not working.