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The Oregonian: Public records and an amusing definition of 'free' (Opinion)

October 30, 2016 10:45 AM
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Public records and an amusing definition of 'free' (Opinion)

By Guest Columnist 

on November 07, 2016 at 7:00 AM, updated November 07, 2016 at 7:07 AM

Darryl Willis

 

In the Oct. 30 "In My Opinion" column titled "In Oregon, the battle against transparency is a bipartisan effort," Adam Andrzejewski makes some claims and complaints. He states that his organization "asked for the salaries of public employees."

 

The request my agency received from "American Transparency" was three paragraphs long and — in part — requested:

"An electronic copy of any and all employees for years of 2015, (fiscal or calendar year). Each employee record should contain the employer name; employer zip code; year of compensation; first name, middle initial, last name; hire date (mm-dd-yyyy); gross annual (fiscal or calendar) wages (including but not limited to salary, over-time wages); position; etc. (etc.: means any other public data available, as to not require the agency to have to remove data from existing records.) This data should be broken down by employer, employee and year."

In his commentary, Andrzejewski complained about Lane County billing him for producing their records. He claimed, "First, transparency should be completely free to all citizens and organizations. Charging for 'open records' makes a mockery of the term 'freedom of information.'" He encouraged fines and firings of employees.

Let me reply to Andrzejewski: Your request was not limited to "salaries of public employees." As a public employee responsible for preserving my agency's public assets and resources, I will certainly perform due diligence before responding to any request which seeks personal information about my fellow employees. Having never before heard of your Illinois-based group, I wondered if you might be nothing more than a front for some commercial enterprise seeking information on thousands of public employees, in order to perhaps bombard them with various sales pitches. Many other questions came to light, compelling me to consult with our legal counsel. After that, I pulled the records together and submitted them to you as requested. There is a real cost for these actions, borne by my agency and by the citizens we serve.

Your definition of "free" is certainly amusing. "Free" does not mean that there is no cost to anyone. It simply refers to a transfer of the real cost. If you want the information to be free (to you), you have the option of personally visiting each local government and viewing public records. Things change when you sit in Illinois and demand that we gather that information, format it for electronic sharing and deliver it to you. Oregon — and all states of which I am aware — allows local governments to recover their reasonable costs to deliver public documents.

"Freedom of information" does not refer to market pricing of that information. It refers to the availability of the information. I work for a tiny agency, so it only cost my agency (and thus our citizens) perhaps a few hundred dollars of staff and legal counsel time. Lane County has more than a thousand employees, including casual part-time and seasonal workers, as well as staff who only worked part of 2015 because they may have been hired, discharged or retired.

From an Oregon taxpayer's point of view, I very much want my government to recover its costs. I guess to you, "free" just means you don't have to pay, as long someone else will package it up and deliver it to you on their dime?      

Darryl Willis is finance manager of Metropolitan Area Communications Commission, an agency overseeing cable franchises in the Tualatin Valley.

 
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