Setting the record straight: The price of transparency
Multiple University of Oregon students were arrested this year, an assistant football coach was paid over $60,000 for less than a week of work and one visit to campus by an author cost UO donors over $40,000. Public records requests help clarify the facts for stories like these.
As a public institution, UO is required to release any document it possesses that doesn’t fall under certain privacy exemptions under Oregon statute 192. This includes employment contracts, salaries, emails between university employees, investigation results, police reports, financial records and other documents the university produces.
Individuals and organizations request records from UO for various reasons. For example, a contractor that lost a bid for a campus construction project may request the winning contract to help with future bids, or a student might make a request to aid research for a thesis.
In July 2010, UO established the Office of Public Records to handle the many requests for records the university receives each month.
The top in-house lawyer for UO, General Counsel Kevin Reed, oversees the public records office, which has two full-time workers. The office must balance transparency with the need to protect certain information exempt from public release, such as student records or trade secrets. Reed reviews requests that may fall under an exemption, and helps the office determine if the records should be released.
If a requester feels that UO withheld records that should have been released, they may appeal the denial to the Lane County District Attorney, who can review the case.
The records office “believes the primary purpose of public records law is to provide transparency in the nature of public workings,” according to its 2016 annual report.
However, delays in response to many requests have made some feel that the UO records office doesn’t provide that transparency to the extent it should.
The public records request log shows that there are currently five outstanding requests from 2016 for which UO is still “reviewing/requesting” records. One of these dates back to October 2016, five months ago.
UO has received 99 records requests in 2017. To date, it has provided records in response to 51 of them.
While the Oregon Department of Justice says two weeks should generally be enough time to fulfill a request, there is no law that mandates a time limit for an institution to release records.
According to Reed, when there are long delays involving a request, it is often due to the complex nature of the request and the fact that the office has to wait for other departments to provide the requested materials.
“We are a large, complex, decentralized organization,” Reed said. “It takes effort to actually bring the documents in. It also takes care to make sure we are not handing over documents that would violate federal law.”
Reed estimates that it costs “in the neighborhood of $300,000 a year” to operate the public records office. UO isn’t required to operate a public records office, but incurs this expense to make the process of collecting and distributing records more streamlined, according to Reed.
As the overseer of the office, Reed meets with his staff weekly to look at new requests and check the status of operations. Reed has an extensive background working with public records law at his previous jobs with UCLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Reed said he is happy with the efforts of the records office. In an interview with the Emerald, he noted that the records office has established a public online status log of all requests — something that isn’t required by law.
Senate Faculty President Bill Harbaugh, an economics professor and public records advocate, criticized the delays that come with some records requests.
“I can’t say that I know the motivations of the UO records office and General Counsel,” Harbaugh said in a January interview with the Emerald. “But when you look at their actions, it’s clear that the delays — weeks to get a response — have the effect of frustrating legitimate public records requests.”
Harbaugh serves as the chair of the Senate Transparency Committee, which “review[s] UO’s procedures regarding access to public records and financial information, and evaluate[s] the effectiveness of those procedures,” according to the UO committees website.
Harbaugh suggested that delays from the records office aren’t always for legitimate reasons, and instead have to do with keeping university affairs secret.
“Anybody who knows the recent history of the University of Oregon knows that it’s full of controversial issues, and so there’s plenty of material that needs to be made public,” Harbaugh said.
According to Harbaugh, the university was under a lot of pressure to release records in 2011, when the Oregonian wrote a letter to then-president Richard Lariviere complaining about the public records office. In response, Lariviere ordered the office to release records more leniently, Harbaugh said.
“Reporters were able to get information, and that made university administrators nervous. They like to do their business in the dark,” said Harbaugh.
Oregon law also allows institutions to charge a requester for the time it takes to produce the records. For some requests, the UO office will provide a cost estimate for pulling those records before asking if they still want to go through with it.
In the 2016 fiscal year, the office estimated a total charge of $10,527.64 for nine requests Harbaugh made. Harbaugh decided not to go through with those requests, according to the records office. He says he would like to see the office waive more fees than they do, especially for students.
Reed disagreed with Harbaugh’s charge that the university may intentionally try to hide things. He expressed surprise when presented with quotes from Harbaugh’s interview with the Emerald.
“I’m really proud of the record of the office right now. I’m frankly astonished by Professor Harbaugh’s quotes,” Reed said.
Reed felt that Harbaugh’s remarks contradicted the 2016 report on the records office put together by the Senate Transparency Committee that Harbaugh chairs.
The report states: “The Senate Transparency Committee appreciates the professional and generally timely manner that public information requests appear to be handled by the UO Office of Public Records. The Committee also acknowledges the mandated balancing of interests between public transparency and protection of privacy.”
UO isn’t the only state institution taking criticism for how it handles public records. The Oregon Department of Justice has created a public records task force to examine the state’s practices in the face of increased criticism.
In a letter to the task force from May 2016, Oregonian reporter Rob Davis wrote: “Agencies throughout the state routinely hide behind outlandish fees, lengthy delays and discretionary exemptions that need not be exercised. They do this to avoid the public scrutiny, oversight and accountability that Oregonians deserve.”
Despite the law’s initial intention, some now see it as a tool the university can hide behind because the law has developed hundreds of exemptions.
“The public records law is a disclosure law. It’s about making state agencies disclose information,” Harbaugh said. “And yet, the university uses this law to prevent information from being released.”