iqoncept/ Can Stock Photo
iqoncept/ Can Stock Photo

Angela Flood: Records from the trenches

When I read last week’s News-Register editorial, “Records law slowly headed on right path,” I was elated the conversation was taking on some structure. The editorial stated, in part, “State and local agencies that create, maintain and often attempt to hide public records possess no special right of ownership. Those agencies merely serve as the custodians on behalf of Oregon residents.”

After more than nine years as an accountability advocate, I have learned that cities, counties and the state of Oregon seem to have a very different take on what “custodian” means.

When many people think of public documents, they assume they are available and free – they think of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA (which hit its 50th anniversary on July 4) applies only to federal information. Furthermore, the First Amendment prohibits the making of any law...abridging the freedom of speech...infringing on the freedom of the press.

Oregon’s public records are governed by the Oregon Public Meetings Law and the Oregon Public Records Law, enacted in 1973. The ORS defines custodian as, “A public body mandated, directly or indirectly, to create, maintain, care for or control a public record.” The agencies do not own the documents. They are simply keepers of the documents owned by the constituency. 

Hundreds of exemptions have been included in Oregon’s records laws throughout the years, allowing for “custodians” loopholes — both real and perceived — to deny the public access to certain records. 

Writer Bruce Colville said, “Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.”

The rights of freedom of information are infringed upon when citizens and media are charged for public documents, or when the delivery of such documents is delayed. This can impact free elections, damage public health and erode trust in the very government we are funding.

Current public record guidelines require you to know exactly what information you want to see, without knowledge of what fee will be charged. There is no designated response time and, in my experience, requests often are processed in an inequitable manner. Allowable fee waivers often are categorically denied.

Government employees have testified about their inability to provide information. There is no evidence-based system for tracking the requests or the fees being collected for providing documents. What other industry would allow people to say they don’t have time to do their job?

These custodians have been working with antiquated policies and have not been using best practices. This most recent attempt at a transparency board should have addressed:

n A defined list of what a public record is, and removal of all exclusions.

n A defined timeline for when records must be made available.

n A directive that all documents will be digitized.

n A directive to remove all fees for electronic records.

n A directive to prosecute when public documents are willfully destroyed.

Being a transparency advocate is not for the faint of heart. It is exhausting work. We are berated and verbally bludgeoned by folks looking to block disclosure. Sometimes we have to step back and recharge. We see the degradation of conversation among folks and know that the only path back is trust in how our resources are being used. Sunlight is the only way to re-establish that relationship. We are passionate, we are informed and we are direct in our efforts. We intimidate the fear-mongering, tax-funded, anti-access lobbyists peddling their antique wares.

This isn’t a party issue. This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. This isn’t even an issue that should be this difficult to solve. Public officials are missing a huge opportunity, in this age of cynicism and distrust, to create a civil, respectful dialogue with the people footing the bill.

Spending my own money, I run a website dedicated to the access and accountability conversation. If you have public records you are willing to provide, or have an interest in the effort to make excellence in access the standard, let me know.

Visit for more ideas on what you can do to make that happen.


Don Dix

Angela -- Well put! But remember, transparency is only as clear as the lawmakers wish it to be.

From the article -- "Public officials are missing a huge opportunity, in this age of cynicism and distrust, to create a civil, respectful dialogue with the people footing the bill."

Consider the issue of 'Kitz and his Koncubine' -- what we will never know? How many tax dollars were funneled out for the benefit of John and his 'grifter'? With all the 'protection' provided by the complicit Ds in the state government (who may be involved in some way), it wouldn't be a surprise that 'nothing' will come of it. That, Angela, is completely a 'party issue'!

Horse with no name

Thanks Angela, excellent points!