Oregon courts have repeatedly affirmed the public’s right to public information, but many government institutions fail to comply with requests.
Legislative reforms in 2017 added a time limit. Problems persist.
House Bill 2353 won’t stop public bodies from failing to comply with the law, though, it does put additional pressure on them by adding a fine of $200. Under the bill, a public body may be required “to pay a penalty of $200 to the requester if the Attorney General, district attorney or court determines that the public body responded to the request with undue delay or failed to respond to the request.” A fee waiver or fee reduction may also be ordered.
Prompt and proper disclosure of public information is essential for Oregonians to understand what their government is doing. For instance, the state’s Department of Human Services has faced lawsuits and criticism for the way it cares for foster children. We requested information last year about how it was making progress on improving. It didn’t respond within the 15 days mandated by the law to even give an estimate of when the request would be fulfilled. Internal DHS emails we later received showed the agency’s leadership was more worried about how the information might be seen, rather than being open with the public. This year, Gov. Kate Brown finally got so fed up with the agency’s performance she set up an oversight board to get directly involved in how DHS operates.
That’s just one example. Testimony on the bill offers more.
When Oregonians make public records requests it takes time and effort. If an agency ignores or unfairly dismisses the request, it can cost the requester more time and money to hire a lawyer to help get the agency to act. Public bodies should not be able to violate the law without knowing they may have to pay a token fine. The bill has passed the House. It should pass the Senate and become law.