That’s the headline from the excellent, long report by Alex Cippolle in the Eugene Weekly here. The synopsis?
This story begins with a simple request for information. Before long, it veers into murky waters about freedom of information and the public trust, and potential violations of both in Eugene and statewide.
The story ends in a snarl of unfortunate answers with, perhaps, a shard of hope.
Little did we know that one narrow request would end with a tumble down the rabbit hole into the absurd world of public records law in Oregon, leaving us with the question: Do you, as a citizen in a democracy, have the right to know?
“It’s getting worse all the time,” [UO Journalism professor Brent Walth] says. “I’ve yet to see an Attorney General since [Dave] Frohnmayer who was serious about enforcing the spirit of the public records law. That sends a loud message across all state and local government that if you want to hide something, you can do it.”
Bill Harbaugh — University of Oregon economics professor, author of UO watchdog blog UO Matters and public records advocate — recalls Frohnmayer’s tenure as AG fondly as well.
“He was very enthusiastic about enforcing the law,” Harbaugh says. “He would tell state agencies, ‘Jump to it.’”
Of course his attitude changed when people were asking for his records! Another:
[Public Records attorney Dave Bahr] and Walth say that Oregon public officials systematically shut down fee waiver requests as a way to prevent potentially embarrassing or unscrupulous information from getting out.
In the spirit of OPRA, however, it is the recommended practice to waive fees if the request is deemed in the public interest. And, Bahr adds, the law as it was intended favors giving access to the media and research groups, as they help communities disseminate information.
Kron of the attorney general’s office says that, in most cases, public records requests submitted by the media are considered in the public interest.
“I think most people would agree that if a reporter is making a request for records related to a story that they’re working on to publish in the paper,” he tells EW, “that that would certainly meet the public interest.”