Editorial: Transparency in government should be a cost of doing business

Government records are public records such as police reports, city contracts, emails of elected officials, and state high school graduation results. These are documents and data produced as part of the work that city halls, school districts, and state agencies do for the general public.

They are also key to tracking how effectively and ethically the government operates. And unfortunately, it can be ridiculously hard for those checking government jobs to get their hands on them.

Senate Bill 417, authored by the state’s Public Records Advisory Committee, takes aim at one of the biggest hurdles standing: the arbitrary and excessive fees that government agencies charge to meet public records requests. For requests determined to be in the public interest, the bill states that “if there is a material prejudice to the administrator, or the waiver prevents the administrator from performing other I will instruct institutions to waive fees unless they are no longer available.”

In other words, waivers are still balanced against practical limits of staffing and time. Importantly, however, prioritizing fee waivers marks a shift in mindset and reinforces the notion that transparency should be a normal cost for governments to do business.

The bill also provides clarity and definition to practices that often appear to be based on whim. It stipulates that institutions may charge fees for searching, copying and reviewing records. Demonstrate a process for improving communication between agents and clients. We will also require the agency to explain the fees we charge if requested by the biller.

“There’s a solid foundation under the words ‘democracy’ and ‘transparency,'” said longtime journalist Emily Emily, who chaired the council’s legislative subcommittee that developed the proposal last year. Harris said.

First, let’s admit that our editorial board is totally biased towards disclosure and fee waivers. Our news organizations will certainly benefit from not having to pay thousands of dollars a year for records that help hold institutions accountable at every level of government. Secondly, Steve Suo, one of his council appointees, is also a member of the editorial board, a former long-time Oregon editor who is married to Laura Gunderson. must be disclosed. But this bill is very important. It’s not that important for businesses like ours that can and do cover those costs, but for smaller organizations that lack the resources to do so.

As evidenced by the recent closure of the Medford Mail Tribune, local news organizations here and across the country are struggling to survive in the lingering industry-wide upheaval. But local scrutiny, including continued reports of the Klamath Basin drought and water crisis, declining high school graduation rates at some schools in La Grande, and an investigation into a shooting at a supermarket in Bend, has put a damper on public information. Access dependent. Excessive fees can discourage organizations of all sizes from pursuing stories that help the public understand how governments work or fail.

Examples sent to the Council for consideration include: County Commission meeting. The Deschutes County circuit court has also suddenly overturned the long-standing practice of posting search warrants in electronic court records accessible to journalists. When The Bulletin filed the search warrant requests last year, the reporter was told it would cost him $33,975 for a judge to review them first. This kind of accusation can deter scrutiny before an investigation can even begin.

The bill represents a firm compromise reached by various groups representing government, media and public perspectives. Some may argue over some elements, but the bill does a great job of achieving a workable structure that promotes clarity, consistency, and fairness.

Only one member of the Public Records Council, representing the state’s largest civil servants union, voted against the proposal. Among her concerns was the bill’s language, which assumes that media requests are made in the public interest without similar consideration for other organizations and individuals. Nothing prevents you from claiming that the information you seek is also in the public interest. This bill simply recognizes the news media’s unique role in informing Oregonians about millions of issues every day. In fact, their existence depends on serving the public good.

Introduced by Senator Kim Thatcher, R-Kiser, currently a member of the Council on Public Records, SB 417 sits before the Senate Rules Committee without a hearing scheduled. It’s still early days and we’re not facing any pressing deadlines to move forward. But at the same time, this is also his one of hundreds of Senate bills introduced during this session. And while elected officials often talk about the importance of transparency in their campaign speeches, it’s much more rare to see it in action.

Transparency builds trust in police, education and government at large. Elected officials who want to stand by their word must show it in this session by pushing SB 417 forward, the bill, and the “yes” vote that the public deserves.

-Oregon/Oregon Live Editorial Board

oregonian editorial

Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, which operates independently of the Newsroom. Members of the Editorial Board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.

Board members meet regularly to determine our institutional stance on the issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspectives can provide clarity and influence next decisions that have great social benefit. Editorials differ from news articles because they are opinion articles.

If you have any questions about the Opinion section, email Opinion Editor Helen Jung or call 503-294-7621.

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