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Audit: Public trust at stake as agencies fulfill records requests

Public records audit part of fallout from Kitzhaber-Hayes influence peddling scandal

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - State agencies need to do a better job providing files to people who ask for public records, according to a new secretary of state audit.Oregon government agencies may be jeopardizing public trust with slow responses to more complex public records requests and inconsistent use of exemptions, according to a state audit report released Tuesday.

The audit is part of the fallout from an influence peddling scandal involving Gov. John Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes. Auditors recommended that the state create an ombudsman position to “serve as an intermediary between the public and state agencies on complex records requests.”

“The public and the press have a right to see how their government operates to serve Oregonians,” Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said in a statement. “This audit demonstrates that state agencies need to improve consistency and develop strategies to better respond to public records requests of all sizes. We must improve the public’s trust in Oregon government.”

Auditors scrutinized requests made to nine state agencies to determine how agencies responded and how records are organized and stored. Agencies furnished records relatively quickly — in two weeks or less — for routine requests, defined as commonly requested information that is easy to find, according to the audit.


More complicated requests could take more than 265 days, result in high and inconsistent fees and lead to “the perception that agencies are using these tactics to block the release of public information,” auditors wrote.

Agencies charge different fees for furnishing public records. Copies can range from 5 cents to 25 cents per page. Staff time can cost between $15 and $40 per hour. For example, the Department of Human Services charged a requester $742 to provide an entire file last year relating to the licensing of a nursing facility and took nearly four months to complete the request.

Ombudsman for requests

Agencies struggle with fulfilling broad requests for “any and all records” and requests for social media posts, text and instant messages or public records from a personal email account. Few of the agencies have policies on how those technologies may be used “in the context of public records and how to retain the data,” auditors wrote.

Navigating the state’s variety of exemptions to disclosure also slowed responses to requests. Agency staff may have to consult with legal counsel to determine whether exemptions apply, according to the audit.

Auditors said an ombudsman could help mediate disputes between agencies and public on many public records request. Washington has an open government ombudsman, appointed by the attorney general. The ombudsman assists the public in making requests and agencies in complying with the state public disclosure law.

'Meaningful changes'

Gov. Kate Brown requested the audit in legislation she proposed during the 2015 legislative session. Senate Bill 9 was a response to delays in the release of public records related to an influence peddling scandal involving Gov. John Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes. Reporters waited months for the state to release documents concerning the overlap between Hayes’ public policy role and private consulting contracts.

The legislation required the secretary of state’s office to audit agencies’ handling of public records requests.

During her State of the State address in April, Brown said the audit was necessary before lawmakers could consider “meaningful changes to improve our public records law.”

Lawmakers are meeting in Salem this week to discuss possible bills for the 2016 legislative session, but Democrats may wait until 2017 to propose any significant changes to Oregon’s public records law.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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