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Lawmakers give lip service to transparency

This coming July 4th, the nation will celebrate not only its 240th birthday, but also the 50th anniversary of the signing of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The law was passed and signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to make it clear that documents created by federal public agencies should be made available to the public, unless there was a good reason to keep them confidential.

Since then, most states have adopted their own laws (Oregon did so in 1973) ensuring the same practice is followed by state and local governments.

In an era when “transparency” has become a political buzzword (and everyone from Ted Cruz to Kate Brown is calling for more of it), you’d think the upcoming milestone would be reason to break out some fireworks.

In reality, though, politicians love transparency until it applies to them — at which point they all too often thwart the law by dragging their feet and jacking up fees charged for public records.

That was the experience of our Capital Bureau reporters Paris Achen and Hillary Borrud, as they prepared to cover the just-completed 2015 legislative session in Salem for the Pamplin Media Group and EO Media Group.

Back in mid-December, the two journalists requested the 2015 calendars of 11 influential lawmakers (nine Democrats and two Republicans). The idea was to find out who the elected officials had been meeting with and whether the access to them resulted in key policy proposals in the 2016 session.

There is absolutely no doubt that calendars showing how public officials spend their time on government-related duties are public documents.

But as of mid-March, none of the requested calendars had been made available. And while five of 11 lawmakers said they’d eventually cough up their calendars at no charge, the rest wanted money. Three of those lawmakers eventually agreed to waive the fees but the final three — all Democrats — held firm.

Senate President Peter Courtney initially said the fee would be $158.

House Speaker Tina Kotek wanted to charge $140 and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson asked for $147.

None of these charges were budget-busters for a news organization like ours, but that’s not the point.

Such information should be available to everyone, not just news organizations, and these lawmakers were saying that the public had to pay for the privilege of knowing who they were meeting with on public business.

That’s ridiculous.

We understand that government agencies need the ability to recover their actual costs of complying with public records requests. But such fees should be imposed only when the request does not serve the public interest.

Knowing who has access to our lawmakers is essential.

What’s more, there must be consistency in how requests are handled.

Our Capital Bureau’s reporting effort revealed wild variations in how much time lawmakers said it would take to get the information and the rate they wanted to charge (from two to 10 hours and from $23 to $80 per hour.)

Part of the issue is that some lawmakers mingled their personal appointments with their public duties on one calendar and didn’t want the public to know when they got a haircut, picked up the grandkids from swim practice or snuck off for a romantic coast getaway. But it’s up to them — on their own time — to separate those items.

As Achen and Borrud reported, a November audit by the Secretary of State’s office found that inconsistencies in the way agencies answer public records requests and charge for them contribute to the perception that the government wants to operate in secret.

When Gov. Brown took office amid a scandal over perceived influence-peddling by her predecessor, she vowed to restore public trust through an environment of openness.

“It was clear that transparency was not a priority in the prior administration,” Brown said in November. “I changed that my first day on the job and every day since. Since I was sworn in, my team and I have worked to increase the level of transparency in state government.”

Yet as a follow-up story by the Capital Bureau shows, since Brown took office, lawmakers have twice failed to pass legislation that would set limits on the time and fees for responding to public records requests.

We expect Brown and lawmakers to do a better job next year. And we encourage voters to ask all candidates for public office for an assurance that, should they get elected, they will make their public calendars available immediately and at no charge.

We can’t imagine anyone denying that request. But we’ve been surprised before.