There is good news from this legislative session regarding public access to public records, and that’s a rare enough occurrence these days that we thought it was worth noting.
We’ve written before about Senate Bill 609, which would require anyone requesting public records to outline, “with particularity ... how the requester intends to use the requested records.” Current law does not require people requesting records to offer any justification for making requests.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, introduced the bill on behalf of former Rep. Deborah Boone. Boone told The Daily Astorian newspaper that she wanted to make sure that only “legitimate” requests for records would be honored. But the bill itself didn’t specify that — and it didn’t say who would be responsible for making the decisions about what requests were legitimate and which ones were not.
Boone likely wanted to curb so-called “fishing expeditions” by the news media and members of the public — requests for government records that are needlessly broad and not very specific.
But here’s the problem: The government has no business whatsoever asking people making requests for public records why they want access to those records. If it’s public, it’s public — and that should be the end of the story. In cases where a government entity might have problems dealing with an overly broad request for records, it’s certainly within its rights to suggest ways that a search could be narrowed — but members of the public making those requests are under no obligation to say why they want the records.
The good news here is that Boone has asked Johnson to let the bill die, and that’s what should happen here— although you never know for sure that a proposal is completely dead until the Legislature adjourns later this year.
Boone, as it turns out, was the subject of a records request from The Oregonian newspaper that yielded 1,800 or so pages of her own correspondence. (Boone said she had asked for the bill to be drafted a few days before the newspaper made the request.)
The newspaper, as part of a broader investigation into state campaign finances, was curious to find out why she had continued to fundraise after announcing her retirement from the Legislature. The newspaper discovered, in part, that Boone had used her state email account to contact state agencies about issues that involved family members.
The Oregonian also used the records to examine a curious campaign finance practice in Oregon: the so-called “pass-through,” in which donors give money to an officeholder with instructions to pass the dough along to another candidate under the officeholder’s name. In an interview with The Oregonian, Boone described a pair of donations from last year that appeared to come from her but came instead from other donors. Boone said the practice is commonplace in the Capitol.
It’s a practice that may violate state law. But even if it’s legal, it doesn’t look good. Legislative leaders need to take a long long at reforming this practice, and the sooner, the better.
We offer details about this because the investigation offers yet another reason why it’s important that public records remain accessible to the public. Forcing people seeking records to state why they want the records easily could have created a chilling effect — and, in theory at least, could have given the government entities holding those records incentives to stonewall requests.
Over the last couple of years, Oregon has started to regain some momentum toward revitalizing its open records laws, after decades in which advocates for openness lost ground every time the Legislature met. Senate Bill 609, in a single stroke, would have jeopardized all those gains. It’s a good thing that the measure appears to be dead.