Ginger McCall, the state of Oregon's first public records advocate, officially left her position last week. As you might have heard, McCall resigned because of what she termed undue interference from the governor's office that undermined the independence of the advocate's position.
But McCall is leaving behind a solid legacy after just 18 months on the job. And she's leaving Oregonians with a parting gift: Her final report, issued this week, offers a path forward for everyone who's concerned about public access to public records — which should be all of us. (A copy of her final report is attached to the online version of this editorial.)
In her report, McCall identifies some of the issues that have hindered access to public records in Oregon, and also lists some common-sense solutions that the 2020 legislative session would do well to pass.
The report doesn't mince any words: "Perhaps the single most pressing issue related to public records requests in the state of Oregon is public records fees," McCall wrote. "High fees are often a barrier to entry for public records requesters — even for professional news media requesters."
We don't disagree that government agencies should be able to cover their legitimate costs involved in making public records available. The problem is that the state law covering this point is sufficiently vague to allow different agencies to charge vastly different fees — and McCall has heard plenty of stories from records requesters who backed off when confronted with an estimated charge in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Even worse, some agencies bill requesters for the legal costs charged by government attorneys to review records. In some cases, McCall reported, that adds $180 or so for every hour of legal review.
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State law does allow agencies to reduce or waive fees for requesters who can show that their request serves the public interest. The problem is that the guidelines on this point are vague enough to allow agencies wide latitude; some agencies frequently waive or reduce fees. Others rarely if ever do so.
McCall's report suggests taking a cue from the federal Freedom of Information Act and setting up categories of requesters and adding more clarity about what costs government agencies can recoup. Such a fee structure could encourage those members of the public who make a point of filing unreasonably broad requests to narrow the scope of those requests, McCall wrote.
McCall also suggests overhauling the process by which denied records requests can be appealed. Currently, if an elected official denies a records request, the only recourse is to file a lawsuit — a costly step that many requesters cannot afford. McCall calls for creating some sort of intermediate review opportunity, another suggestion that lawmakers should pursue, and it gave her a chance to fire off a little zinger: "While independence in state government is a challenge this Advocate is familiar with, it is not impossible to imagine that some kind of separate, independent, or even simply walled-off office can exist which can provide a reliable review of elected officials' public records decisions."
There is momentum behind another set of McCall's recommendations, aimed at ensuring the independence of the advocate's position and the Public Records Advisory Council, which the advocate leads. The Legislature likely will take up these reforms, as well it should. Among the proposed overhauls: making it clear that the advocate reports only to the council and allowing the council to introduce proposed legislation on its own behalf, instead of going through the governor's office.
All in all, McCall's final report offers a blueprint that lawmakers and other officials can use to ensure that the state's halting progress can resume. It should not gather dust in the Capitol.
— Mike McInally, Corvallis Gazette Times