Freedom Foundation

The City of Portland and the Evolution of Public Records

Portland has shown once again that it doesn’t really regard public records as public.

After a bizarre series of events last year that resulted in the city forking over $22,000 in legal fees to the Freedom Foundation, driven more by government union directed hate than any kind of rational policy considerations, the city of Portland has lost another court case dealing with public records.

It’s become clear from a Multnomah County Circuit Court ruling, reported in the Portland Mercury, that the city:

  • creates artificially high, “worst-case” estimates for public records requests, using salaries of very highly paid employees as the basis for the estimate; and,
  • has no mechanism to refund the requester in cases where the request costs less than the estimate.

Oregon law on public records is clear and refreshingly plainspoken:

“The public body may establish fees reasonably calculated to reimburse the public body for the public body’s actual cost of making public records available, including costs for summarizing, compiling or tailoring the public records, either in organization or media, to meet the request.”

It’s more than disappointing that Portland bureaucrats aren’t just fighting a particular records request; in fact, the city has a systemwide policy to slow walk the process for delivering public records.

We need to be moving a different direction.

We’ve evolved from the days of a clerical bureaucrat leafing through dead-tree file folders to a new era of a technical bureaucrat writing a simple search query — just like you’ve probably done on your own personal email account.

It’s simple to do, takes very little time, and the justification for charging the public is less and less defensible. Right now, the procedures for requesting public records resemble nothing so much as a game of “go fish.”

Nearly everything is public, but it’s not well indexed or cataloged, so when the taxpayers want information, they must guess. Consequently, public records requests look like, “Any and all documents from X containing the keywords Y or Z.”

Imagine a system in which you go to a web page, select a municipality, then select a city employee — like, say, Mayor Ted Wheeler or Historic Landmarks Commission member Wendy Chung. This essentially redirects you to a read-only version of their email account.

Can you imagine the impact this would have on the ability of the media to do their job?

We need to be moving in this direction.