Oregon Cities

Oregon Legislature reaches compromise on public records proposal

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The Oregon Legislature has passed a compromise bill that satisfies government transparency advocates, stamping out earlier fears that lawmakers would weaken the state’s public records law and approve an exemption barring the disclosure of any taxpayer information.

House Bill 4031 would require local government agencies to treat tax information with the same confidentiality restrictions that the Oregon Department of Revenue follows. It’s pared down from an initial version that would have made all taxpayer information that local government agencies possess exempt from disclosure under the state’s public records law.

The bill stems from a public records conflict between Oregon Public Broadcasting and the city of Portland that spilled over into the courts with a twist: Instead of a requester suing an obstructive government agency for public records, Oregon’s largest city is suing the media outlet and one of its reporters, Monica Samayoa, who requested the names of businesses and the amount each one paid into Portland’s clean energy tax program.

The bill passed both chambers and is in Gov. Tina Kotek’s office.

Steve Bass, OPB’s president and CEO, said the outcome was a good compromise and comes as the outlet considered the big picture of government transparency.

“We were against amending the public records law because that could do all sorts of harm in terms of the public’s right to know,” Bass said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. “So if they felt as though clarifying that local government entities have to play by the same rules as state entities, I think that’s perfectly fine. At the same time, we were not convinced that this was necessary.”

Intense lobbying

The bill came after intense lobbying from business groups for the records law to be tightened, including from Oregon Business & Industry, a statewide business group that also supports the city’s lawsuit.

The Society of Professional Journalists was also involved. Rachel Alexander, co-chair of the Freedom of Information Committee of the Greater Oregon Society of Professional Journalists, said the bill that passed is less problematic than the prior one but that journalists will still track its implementation.

“We remain concerned about the speed with which this was pushed through and the lack of deliberation,” Alexander said. “It’s really difficult to say from looking at the language of the law how different records officers and district attorneys might interpret it, and in practice, those interpretations often matter more than the actual text of the law when determining the impact on the public’s right to know.”

After city officials denied the public records request, OPB filed a petition with Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. The district attorney’s office ordered the city of Portland to hand over the names of the companies and the dollar amounts owed, but without a way to correlate the individual dollar amounts with specific businesses. Instead of handing over the records, the city of Portland in January sued OPB and the reporter in Multnomah County Circuit Court, seeking a court order to block the disclosure of the records.

Bass said OPB believes the city could have denied the public records requests if it had cited exemptions that already exist in state law.  Instead, the city’s denial relied upon city statutes rather than exemptions in the state public records law that allow government agencies to block the release of records.

“They could have avoided this entire thing, to be honest,” Bass said. “And then they turned around and sued us.”

Court case continues

In testimony submitted to lawmakers, Portland’s interim chief financial officer, Thomas Lannom, said the city supports the bill and acknowledged Portland could lose its lawsuit.

“The city has filed suit in court to defend its belief that this information is and should be held in confidence,” Lannom said. “However, litigation always comes with uncertainties. If the city loses, every piece of information on a tax return or documents submitted in response to an audit is available to anyone making a public records request. This applies to both business and individual taxpayer information.”

The lawsuit will continue after the Legislature ends its session this week.

On Wednesday, OPB filed a motion that asks the court to dismiss the city’s lawsuit on the grounds that the public records law doesn’t allow government agencies to sue requesters. The city hasn’t responded to the motion, which requests a hearing.

“Basically the city is arguing that they have the right to sue requesters of public records,” Bass said. “What the court is going to do is to rule on that. We think that local government does not have that right.”

Attorneys for the city didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Editor’s note: This story was reported and edited without the involvement of anyone in management from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X.


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