SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Justice has overturned a rule requiring some state agencies to charge for public records, a move that reverses a 2002 interpretation of the state’s public records law by an earlier state attorney general.
The Statesman Journal reported Wednesday (http://stjr.nl/2ceV7Rb ) that the ruling came about because the newspaper challenged the state’s Public Employees Retirement System over a fee for a public records request.
The retirement system charged the newspaper $112 to produce the 2015 travel receipts of its director and board member and then denied the newspaper’s request to waive the fee.
Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss ordered PERS to reconsider the fee waiver request and said the retirement system may be “legally required” to waive or reduce fees for public records, contrary to order issued under former Attorney General Hardy Myers. Myers had ordered PERS to charge full price for records requests.
PERS argued that it is legally barred from waiving fees charged for producing public records because pension funds can only be used to the benefit of PERS members. But Boss wrote that PERS already uses its funds for activities that don’t directly benefit pension members and releasing public records should be no exception.
“Although a public body enjoys discretion with respect to whether to grant or deny fee waivers and reductions, that discretion is not unlimited,” Boss wrote.
“It has never been suggested that PERS cannot pay appropriate overtime, pay for reasonable accommodations for employees and members of the public with disabilities, pay the wages Oregon’s prevailing wage law requires for certain construction projects, or pay expenses associated with collective bargaining,” he wrote.
It wasn’t clear how sweeping of an affect the ruling would have, but open records advocates hailed the news as a step in the right direction.
Judson Randall, former president and co-founder of freedom of information group Open Oregon, called high fees imposed by public bodies to release public records “a major problem with transparency.”
“I think the ruling, depending on how it plays out, is a really good thing,” Randall said. “It’s a wee step in the right direction.”
The Bend Bulletin is also embroiled in a dispute over public records fees and is also awaiting a ruling from the Department of Justice.
The Oregon Lottery charged the newspaper $262 for an email thread containing around a dozen emails.
Agency officials said they submitted the documents to the Department of Justice to see whether one of over 500 exemptions applied and could block them from public view, and that they were legally required to collect money before releasing the documents.
A task force overseen by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is currently reviewing public records laws.
The task force, which includes journalists and government officials, is working on legislation for the 2017 session that would require public bodies to release records faster.