Fans of the Sierra Club presumably applauded last week's ruling that lets the group dodge nearly $17,000 in attorney fees. All supporters of open government should join the ovation, whether they like the Sierra Club or not.
We'll begin at the beginning. The Oregon International Port of Coos Bay has been flirting with companies that may want to export coal and natural gas. The Sierra Club, to no one's surprise, disapproves. To learn details of the flirtation, it formally requested copies of relevant letters and memos -- lots of them.
The port, a public agency, is obliged to hand over documents covered by Oregon's public records law. But port officials said much of the documents' content was legally confidential. Separating the publicly disclosable wheat from the confidential chaff requires a sharp-eyed lawyer, and the port argued the Sierra Club should pay for one.
The Sierra Club, contemplating a $20,000 invoice, appealed to a higher authority, Coos County's district attorney. R. Paul Frasier issued his ruling this week. He concluded the Sierra Club owes about $3,300 in copy charges and administrative fees. But the port has to pay its own lawyer.
The reason derives from the philosophy behind Oregon's sunshine laws. A healthy democracy depends on government transparency. Agencies can charge reasonable fees to copy records, but requiring citizens to pay enormous sums defeats the whole notion of openness.
The cost of the Sierra Club's fishing expedition is a little irksome for taxpayers. But what's the alternative? The cost of obeying state law must be the port's responsibility, not the Sierra Club's.
The same is true when a newspaper or an individual citizen requests public records. Otherwise, far fewer public records ever would come to light. Regardless of anyone's motives or political views, the public records law protects all of us.