Residents in The Dalles and The Oregonian newspaper are in an indirect fight over secrecy with Google. They want to know more about the company’s water use.
Google wants to expand its data centers in The Dalles. Water helps keep data centers cool. And to expand its data centers, Google needs The Dalles to expand its water system.
Google is offering to pay The Dalles $28.5 million to do so. Some residents wonder what that will mean for the future of water in the area. How good a deal is it? Oregonian reporter Mike Rogoway asked the city for a record of how much water Google used last year.
The city’s answer: no.
Rogoway asked the Wasco District Attorney to rule on the matter. He ruled the information was a public record.
On Friday, the city of The Dalles filed suit to keep Google’s water use a secret.
The city essentially argued Google’s water use is a trade secret. Oregon law conditionally exempts trade secrets from disclosure unless the public interest requires disclosure. You could argue that if competing data centers knew how much water Google was using it might help them to gain a business advantage. So if you concede Google’s water use is a trade secret, might the public interest still demand its release?
The following passage in Oregon’s public records manual is instructive. It’s long: “In assessing whether the public interest requires the disclosure of trade secrets, we typically look to how much harm the entity asserting a trade secret would suffer by disclosure; the benefits enjoyed by that entity in connection with submitting the information at issue; and the nature of the governmental activity connected to the information. For example, we concluded that the public interest required disclosure of salary information of private companies that had received sizable property tax abatements: even assuming the information qualified as trade secret, we found that disclosure would help the public monitor the effectiveness of this investment of public funds tied to job creation....”
The public’s interest in Google’s water use is clear. First, Oregon’s public records law favors disclosure, not secrecy.
There is also absolutely no question that the public in The Dalles would like to know more about the deal their government is doing with Google. The city and county have offered Google tax breaks. Water is a precious resource. It’s a public resource. Google’s use of that water may have implications for future public use of water. Without knowing the details of Google’s water use, the public cannot judge the performance of its elected officials in creating the deal.
Does there need to be more than that? Not in our mind, but there is at least one other key consideration. Google’s water use has been reported in other states. That doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on what should happen in Oregon. It is useful to know.
Where would Oregonians be if companies get tax breaks or make deals with government that involve public spending can keep the details hidden? Oregonians would live in a state of secrets and silence, not of open government.