John Kroger Should Fix Oregon’s Public Records Law

Guest opinion submitted by Bill Harbaugh
professor of economics at the University of Oregon.

Oregon has horrible public records laws. They can be fixed overnight.

In his inaugural speech President Barack Obama said that he would make sure our federal government would “do our business in the light of day.” He meant it — his first official act was an executive order strengthening the federal FOIA act. Oregon needs to do the same thing. Our public records law gives too much discretion to state agencies and too little power to citizens who want to know what those agencies are doing. We need change. We can get it quickly. Here’s how.

In theory, Oregon’s public records law makes it simple for people to get documents that are in the possession of a state or local agency. An email to the agency head saying “this is a public records request for” followed by a description of the document is all it should take. The agency is required to make a pro-forma response “as soon as practicable” and make “proper and reasonable” efforts to get you the documents promptly.

In practice things don’t work this way. Oregon law doesn’t tell agencies how long they have to respond and some use this loophole with glee. The only recourse — short of court — is to petition Oregon’s Attorney General and ask him to order the agency to comply with the law. But with no firm deadline, the interpretation of “proper and reasonable” is all up to the AG. Former AG Hardy Meyers and his deputy Pete Shepherd routinely let state agencies take at least a month — sometimes even two — to produce even a single page document.

John Kroger, Oregon’s new Attorney General, can change this overnight by using a more proper and reasonable definition of “reasonable and proper.” The obvious choice would be the same 5-day standard that most other states use. In a pinch agencies could take longer, but only if they could justify it to the AG. Oregon would move, well, not to the front, but at least to the middle of the pack with respect to public records access.

I’ve posted more about this, including some practical information on how to get Oregon public records, at

— Bill Harbaugh is a professor of economics at the University of Oregon. He has submitted this article to other blogs to help spread the word. You can help by emailing it to your friends.

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Posted by at 04:50 | Posted in Measure 37 | 18 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Britt Storkson

    This is a classic example of: Often what is -in- the law isn’t a problem…It’s what – isn’t- in the law that’s the problem. This is no accident.
    Other examples of what -isn’t- in the law that’s a problem: Did you know that it is not illegal to hold rigged corporate board of directors elections? The law says only that they must hold elections. It doesn’t say that the elections must be honest or impartial.
    Did you know that it is not illegal for a corporation to use corporate money to work against the shareholder? There is nothing in the law that prohibits this activity.
    Many wonder why people are pulling out of the stock market. With these kind of rules to the game I wonder why anybody is still in the stock market.

  • Matt Evans

    The other thing that needs to be fixed is what constitutes a “reasonable” charge for agency costs to comply with a public records request. A couple of years ago, I was told by a public agency that it would cost $2 million to run a keyword search on their email system. This response was politically motivated – the agency head didn’t want to reveal these communications because he knew they would be damaging.

  • David from Eugene

    In my work I use the Oregon Public Records Law to gain access to records on a regular basis. In some cases the response time has been less then 24 hours and in other cases months within the same office. In some cases with other state offices I can walk in and ask to see some files and have them in hand in minutes. Fast response is possible if the agency wants to be helpful or is subject to other motivations.

    The area of fees and charges does need to be looked at and looked at hard. The first abuse I see is charging for the time a supervisor spends going over the file before I get to see it. Ostensibly, it is to make sure that nothing that is protected by a statutory exception is included, but in some cases it more as case of “record sanitation”.

    Then there is the matter of the time of the low level employee who watches me read the records and take notes. I understand the need to supervise public records to insure that the records are not being stolen or changed, at the National Archives in Washington DC this is done by armed guards, but I have a problem with being charged the full hourly rate for someone who is doing state work at the same time they are “monitoring” my activities.

    Lastly, photo copying, I have a problem with being charged 25 cents a page plus the hourly rate of the clerk who makes the copies. The last time I was at Kinko’s/FedEx the copies were 8 cents each not 25 cents. Either the state is being ripped off by its copier suppliers or the state agency is double charging.

    • Rupert in Springfield

      Why would you assume the state is being ripped off by the copier suppliers?

      You think the state spends any time at all trying to negotiate lower prices with suppliers for paper or toner?

      Of course not, they pass the bill straight along to you. They don’t give a rip about your costs, they don’t have to, there is no “competition” to go to.

      That they don’t care about lowering costs to you is obvious. That they don’t care about wasting money is equally obvious. There are dozens of copier service businesses out there, if one was ripping them off they could easily go to another. It’s simply easier to awards a sweetheart contract to a favoured copy business and soak you for the difference.

      You think the poor babies in the records office are getting ripped off? Not quite, they do charge you three times the price of Kinko’s after all.

      You pay three times the price so you are the one getting ripped off. It is hardly by the copier service company.

  • eagle eye

    Is this the same Professor Harbaugh whose government-supported research on taxes and neuroscience was mocked at this very website?

    • Bill Harbaugh

      Yes! The very same. Currently I’m working at a research lab in Italy, and I can report that Italians think the notion that people get a neural benefit from involuntary taxation is even more amusing than Oregonians do.

      But that’s a little off topic, eh?

      • eagle eye

        At a lab in Italy, eh? You professors really go the extra mile in the search for truth. And in service to the taxpayers. Is this what they call a sabbatical? Or is it study abroad?

        Has Oregon Catalyst had some kind of revelation? Perhaps you have reoriented their neurons?

        Please enlighten us! And be transparent, no academic gobbledegook if you can help it.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          I’m curious why you often single out university professors for your ire, but get quite defensive at any criticism of primary and secondary school teachers in the public system?

          Do you have some sense that a university professor doesn’t work as hard, or is less worthy of respect than a high school teacher?

          • eagle eye

            You have it backward, or at least sideways. Others, including posters of blogs, are the ones here who are always demeaning university professors and Oregon higher education.

            I’m tweaking Professor Harbaugh a bit. He can handle it, he certainly does the same very well to UO Pres Dave Frohnmayer. Surely he can explain why he’s in Italy doing research on Italian neurons rather than trying to help bonehead students understand Econ 101.

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >You have it backward, or at least sideways. Others, including posters of blogs, are the ones here who are always demeaning university professors and Oregon higher education.

            I wasn’t asking or inquiring about treatment by others. I was asking about you and your treatment. Others who may do such thing do not seem to bristle at any criticism or reform of the public school system or its teachers in quite the same way that you do. I was wondering why the disparate treatment on your part.

            I just simply didn’t understand why, at least from my observations, you seem to feel university professors are less deserving of respect than public school teachers. I wasn’t asking if you felt other people were critical of them. My question was also not specific to professor Harbaugh.

          • eagle eye

            If I have ever been critical of university professors as a group here, I don’t know when that would be. Generally I have defended them from people who dump on them here.

            My defesne of K-12 teachers etc. is entirely against people who make absurd claims e.g. that Oregon public schools are among the worst in the country or the world.

          • Rupert in Springfield

            Ok – You say you don’t single out university professors and I can accept that. Obviously it’s a perception problem on my part. I do remember you once saying I was overcharged by the university I attended and perhaps took that as some sort of criticism of academia in general.

            I do have to say I’m not sure when I have seen anyone argue that Oregon schools are among the worst in the country. It’s my experience that k-12 in this state is middling to high on a national level. While it is true our schools do perform below most other industrialized countries on a k-12 level, our universities are among the best in the world. Hence my quandary with what I perceived as disparate treatment for university professors. My bad.

          • eagle eye

            It’s been argued right here (and elsewhere) — not by me — that Oregon schools are 49th in the country.

            Oregon schools are middling for the U.S. as you say.

          • dean

            Rupert…when you say: “our universities are among the best in the world.” Do you mean Oregon’s or the United States as a whole? If you mean Oregon’s, what rating system are you using?

  • Big K

    The loophole with glee. That bets explains everyone I know when they ask for such information, it is as if they throw up a wall right when you ask. Sometimes they just block you even before you can finish a sentence. This does not apply to all, but there are certian agencies that are far worse than others. Please Bill, keep this issue alive.

  • Sagano

    If Kroger can change this with a simple proper reader of the law, then he should. Then I ask, why didn’t Myers do it? I think these gov’t leaders think that any discomfort or criticism from open records laws will somehow hurt them when in solid truth it only makes government stronger.

  • Bill Harbaugh

    Many of my PR requests have been potentially embarrassing to UO President Frohnmayer. Meyers and Frohnmayer are longtime friends – Frohnmayer was AG before Myers.

    The part that still surprises me is how they were able to get Deputy AG Pete Shepherd to twist his interpretation of the PR law so much. Some of his PR petition rulings are extremely embarrassing for him, to the point that he wouldn’t even add them to the online database of rulings.

  • I have not much time, but I’ve got many useful things here, love it!

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