SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Fees charged by the state of Oregon and local governments for public records requests are high and wildly uneven, creating a barrier for journalists and citizens seeking documents, Oregon's first public records advocate said Wednesday.
Ginger McCall, who leaves her job Friday after her resignation announcement last month accused the governor's office of interference, said fees, sometimes reaching $180 per hour, are onerous compared to what the federal government and other states charge.
"Citizens cannot engage meaningfully with government or make educated choices about their democracy if they do not know what their government is doing. And public records are key to gaining that knowledge," McCall said, identifying fees as "the single most pressing issue."
She recommended a fee structure that give officials less room to charge what they want, and with lower rates.
Public records requesters who demand an outsized amount of government resources by making overly broad or frequent requests could be incentivized to narrow requests with the fee structure, she wrote. She noted that the federal Freedom of Information Act allows for the first two hours or 100 pages of any public records request to be free, and Alaska allows for the first five hours of public records request processing time per calendar month to be free of charge.
McCall, who is returning to Washington, D.C., to take a job with the federal government, also called for the Legislature and others to commit more resources to public records processing, to offset the costs to public bodies if they wind up collecting lower fees as she has recommended.
McCall announced her resignation in September, saying Gov. Kate Brown's office wanted her to secretly work for the governor while giving the impression she was working in the public interest. Brown, who appointed McCall in 2018 as Oregon's first-ever public records advocate, said she regrets the controversy and is committed to improving transparency.
McCall's final report also lamented that if an elected official denies a records request, the only option the requester has is to take the matter to court. That's too expensive for many people to pursue, she noted. An intermediate appeal option could be created in which a separate, independent office reviews elected officials' public records decisions, McCall said.
Brown is eager to hear the Public Records Advisory Council's recommendations based on McCall's report, said Charles Boyle, press secretary for the governor.
The council said last month that both it and the advocate should be truly independent, with the adviser appointed by the council, not by the governor. Brown says she supports that move.
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