Transparency at any Cost

Albany has a great record on the issue of transparency, having won awards or recognition from a number of organizations dedicated to open government.  I believe we provide more current financial information on our website than any other local government in the world.  Albany’s commitment to this principle is not new and has been included in the orientation session for new employees for many years.

Government transparency is both a matter of law and good sense.  We who work in government benefit far more from open access to our records and meetings than we ever could from attempting to conceal them.  Most of the people we serve understand that mistakes will be made and are willing to tolerate them if they are openly acknowledged.  I am, therefore, generally supportive of efforts to make government as open possible.

Oregon’s attorney general John Kroger has made transparency a primary goal of his administration and has recently sponsored legislation to improve access to government records.  The proposed laws would limit government charges for retrieving documents and mandate shorter deadlines for producing requested material.  While I am sympathetic with the goals of the legislation, I fear it may impose a cost burden on taxpayers without producing a commensurate benefit.  The proposed law seems to be inspired by a small number of governments in a limited number of cases responding slowly or badly to requests for information.  It ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of Oregon governments routinely make good faith efforts to quickly and inexpensively provide requested information to those who seek it.  Local governments have made tremendous progress in recent years in making information available through their websites; and new technology, such as memory sticks, has made data transfer even easier.

The key problem with records laws that do not allow governments to have some control over access is that there are people and organizations that delight in paralyzing government with massive requests for information.  I have personally seen many pointless requests for a huge number of documents that were only deterred by legitimate policies requiring the requesting party to pay the costs of retrieving and copying the information.  Several years ago, I recall a law firm in an eastern state requesting copies of every document in the city’s possession related to telecommunications.  The cost of compiling, copying, and mailing those documents was substantial; and it is almost certain that the firm would never have spent the time to actually read them, given that they made the same request to all Oregon cities.  I look forward to the day when our electronic storage and retrieval technology is so good that anyone can see anything we produce through our website.  Albany has probably done more than almost any other government to move toward that day.  In the meantime, I think it’s important that we make our records as affordably accessible as possible while safeguarding a legitimate public interest in controlling costs.