Our Opinion: Don't politicize public records requests
Dennis Richardson's efforts to position himself as Oregon's titan of transparency suffered a self-inflicted setback earlier this month when the secretary of state complied with a public records request — while attacking the requester.
On Friday, Sept. 15, Richardson's office sent out a news release announcing that it was responding to a records request by the Oregon Nurses Association. The announcement included the ONA's request, made in mid-July, and the secretary of state's response, which came 14 days later.
Richardson's office deserves credit for responding to the initial request, which was very broad, in a timely manner and for waiving the fees.
But the state's second-highest elected official couldn't resist the urge to turn the request into a political statement.
The news release was titled "Response to Special Interest Group's Unreasonable Fishing Expedition" and opined that the public documents sent to the ONA "disprove the baseless political attacks" made by the lobbying group.
We don't blame Richardson for being upset.
The ONA's request was an attempt to dig up dirt on him and state Rep. Julie Parrish, who's sponsoring a ballot measure that would put the state's health provider tax up to a public vote. The nurses group supports the tax measure and was looking to see whether there was a public record trail that might show Parrish had mixed her legislative duties with her private political consulting business, which did some work for Richardson's campaign last year.
The use of public records requests as political weapons is an increasing trend, and one that understandably has many public officials, not just Richardson, on edge.
But publicly attacking those who seek public records is a troubling development.
In fact, Richardson himself is backing a political ally, Portland Schools activist Kim Sordyl, who — along with Portland Tribune reporter Beth Slovic — was sued by Portland Public Schools in an effort to deny them public records pertaining to employees on paid leave.
PPS isn't alone. On Sept. 17, The Associated Press reported that "government bodies are increasingly turning the tables on citizens who seek public records that might be embarrassing or legally sensitive."
In some cases, their tactic is a lawsuit. Richardson chose to use his public office to attack the requester's motives.
In doing so, the secretary of state blew a chance to model how agencies should deal with a requester, even one they think is out to get them.
The key word is engagement: engage with the requesters to narrow the request and get at what they are really looking for, thus saving time and money for the government.
The nurses' association opened the door for such a dialogue. Feeling that Richardson's initial response was incomplete (and it appears that it was), the ONA sent a clarifying request on Aug. 22, highlighting the portions of their lengthy request which the group felt had been ignored.
Rather than engage the requester, Richardson's office sat on the request for 24 days and then responded by attacking the labor group's "unreasonable fishing expedition" without giving it the opportunity to narrow its request.
The Secretary of State then further politicized the response by claiming the records he turned over show how his office "provide[s] excellent customer service."
Richardson's mishandling of this request shows why the task of complying with records law often costs more than it needs to: a lack of communication.
A more pragmatic, cooperative approach is exactly what the new state Public Records Advocate was set up to foster: mediating disputes and training and educating the public as well as public officials in best practices.
That office is a bit in limbo, with the Richardson's office in charge until an advocate is hired, at which point the post will become more closely affiliated the governor's office, while still being housed in the secretary of state.
The unfortunate ways that Portland Public Schools and Richardson's office responded to potentially embarrassing records requests shows why the public records advocate is needed.
Richardson and Gov. Kate Brown clashed during the legislative process that created this new position. They now need to put that behind them and hire a good advocate and get the office off on the right foot.