Oregon lawmakers should take cue from Florida's Sunshine Laws
In elementary school, Franklin Weekley was diagnosed as mentally retarded. He was slow to learn, but quick to act out on impulse. Teachers at his rural school were unequipped to get a handle on him. Weekley ended up spending much of his time at home. Unsupervised, he would often get in trouble.
Weekley fought with his siblings and raged at his neighbors. He was fascinated with fire and explosives, and was quick to run away in frustration. His parents who were also developmentally disabled hoped Weekley would grow out of it.
In 2001, that hope went up in smoke literally after Weekley set his family home on fire. The family lost everything, including their son, who was committed to a state-run mental facility as a result.
While in state care, Weekley vanished one day. The state agency in charge of his care would claim the developmentally disabled teenager who had problems dressing himself ran to Canada. But around 2004, an attorney heard about the disappearance. That attorney told a reporter, and soon after, the reporter filed public records request with the state agency in charge.
Those records showed that state contractors had found a body in an abandoned building on the property shortly after Weekleys disappearance.
The records showed the body was badly decomposed, but around the skeletons hips was an elastic underwear band with F.Weekley written on the tag. A reporters investigation found Weekley had run away into an abandoned building and fell down an elevator shaft, where he died.
Shortly after that story was published, the state agreed to pay Franklin Weekleys parents $1.3 million.
Strong public records laws have the ability to right wrongs, hold state workers including politicians accountable, and shine a light into the darkest recesses of government like the bottom of a derelict elevator shaft on state-owned property. Public records laws help keep things honest.
That was the case in Florida, where Franklin Weekley died. Yet if that were to happen in Oregon, its a good bet that Weekleys whereabouts would still be unknown. Thats because a public records request for a case like Weekleys would almost certainly be obstructed by delays, exemption claims, and high costs.
The current state of public records is poor to pathetic, said Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss. The public agencies have no deadlines to require to public records request, so they often do so slowly and incompletely. Some public agencies use their ability to charge whatever they want in a punitive fashion.
Jaquiss, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Investigative Reporting, routinely files public records requests and he said state agencies often find reasons to block requests because they fear publication of a story that would be embarrassing.
As Jaquiss noted, there are no deadlines for Oregon agencies to respond to requests, nor are there limits to costs. Even if the agencies do respond, there are more than 500 exemptions to the states public records laws.
And while some of the exemptions serve the public good by protecting the victims of domestic abuse, or shielding state employee medical information, other exemptions include dog licenses, information about boat accidents, and complaints filed by consumers about insurance companies, manufactured homes, and even the states judges.
In comparison, Florida has four exemptions of public records, there are deadlines for when responses must be filed, and costs must correlate with work performed and be clearly outlined.
Legal challenges to this obstruction are often long and costly, and it creates an Oregon where only those with resources have access to transparency.
While the states reporters have long complained about the states open records laws, national research shows Oregon has some of the weakest open records rules in the country. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Oregon earns an F grade in the State Integrity Investigation, which measures transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states.
The state also earns an F grade measuring the publics access to information, ranking 34th in the country. For context, Florida is ranked 17th (and neighboring California and Washington ranked 28th and 32nd, respectively).
The Oregon Territory Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is calling on policymakers to reform Oregons open record laws. Our membership believes that if its good enough for Florida, it should be good enough for Oregon. We urge the public to support that reform.
And we encourage all journalists and voters to hold policymakers accountable until that reform is achieved.