Virginia-based group accuses Gresham-Barlow schools chief of impeding records law
Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Ken Noah estimated earlier this month that it would cost $1.89 million to comply with a public records request from a group calling itself Citizen FOIA (Freedom of Information Act.)
Now Citizen FOIA, a group linked to the conservative, term limits advocacy group Citizens in Charge, has accused the Gresham superintendent of deliberately impeding Oregon open records law.
Noah, however, says his estimate is reasonable and accuses Citizen FOIA of abusing Oregon's statutes.
He says the group's request for all Gresham-Barlow employee e-mails relating to Oregon ballot measures 39, 45 or 48, 'appears to be a way to tie up considerable taxpayer resources to comply with politically motivated interests.'
'Quite frankly, this is an abuse of the Oregon statutes on open records,' Noah said.
Citizen FOIA, which claims it is trying to 'shed the light of day on government activity,' is an offshoot of the Virginia-based Citizens in Charge. This group is led by Libertarian radio show host and political columnist Paul Jacob, a man known for his staunch support of term limits and his distaste for campaign finance reform.
Citizen FOIA recently requested public records from hundreds of cities, agencies and school districts in seven different states, including more than 480 in Oregon.
Kurt Weber, a Portland member of Citizen FOIA, initiated the Oregon records requests and says on his online blog, www.oregonfoia.blogspot.com, that he is concerned that nonelected public employees are using public resources to campaign for political purposes.
The records Weber requested from Gresham-Barlow and other local school districts request e-mails that reference three ballot measures relating to private-property rights, term limits and limiting state spending.
When Noah checked into meeting the request, Steve Beining, the district's technology coordinator, estimated it would take 31,000 hours to scan the district's 450,000 e-mails.
Billed at an overtime rate of $60 an hour, Noah said it would cost more than $1.89 million to comply with the public records request.
Citizen FOIA countered that estimate, saying it should take less than one hour to conduct a simple keyword search for e-mails relating to the three ballot measures.
But Beining says district administrators would have to actually open and read all of the e-mails in order to determine whether they meet the definition of a 'public record' and to ensure that they don't contain personal student information. Releasing private student information would violate federal laws.
'A keyword search would return a list of e-mails, much like Google would returns lists of (Web sites),' Beining explains. 'But just providing a list of e-mails doesn't tell us what's in those messages. The only way to tell if the message contains information they were requesting is to open it and read it.'
The $1.89 million cost Noah quoted to Citizen FOIA is based on reviewing the district's e-mails and e-mail attachments.
Noah says he stands by the district's estimated cost.
'Our estimates were not out of range,' Noah said. 'We have nothing to hide, and that's why I'm willing to comply with the request. But I'm not going to take away money from children in this day and age when it's that intrusive of a request.'
On its Web site, www.citizenfoia.org, the group lists the agencies, cities and school districts that have responded to the public records requests; and slams agencies that are slow to respond or give reasons why they can't fulfill the request.
As of Friday, the Gresham-Barlow School District was the only Oregon school district that has responded to the group's request.