An Oregon Story

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Across the country people are going to government meetings asking for better government.  In Oregon the Attorney General is asking people for their input and Darrell Flood answered the call to make sure the elected officials in Oregon know that government information needs to be online and updated in real time.  He has graciously shared his experience with us.

My name is Darrell Flood. I used to be a cop and after I was unable to do that I couldn’t suppress the urge to help people, so I became an activist. I have testified before government agencies for the past three and a half years – mostly at the local level, once at the state regarding ethics and most recently at the Attorney General’s Government Transparency Initiative Meeting. So, I am no expert on providing testimony, but I don’t consider myself a novice either.

The Transparency Initiative is a series of meetings across the state to get input from the public on Oregon’s transparency laws. I signed up to be at the one in Portland, Oregon. In preparation for the meeting I spent some time reviewing the statutes, the public records and the meetings manual from the State of Oregon. For my testimony, I had written a nice long story about things I had encountered and then showed it to my wife. She said the following “It is too long and you only have 2 minutes. They are not there for your story telling, you have to be quick.” So, after some rewrites I had my testimony.

We showed up to the meeting about a half hour before it started and signed in–also signing the testimony sheet. When the meeting started the moderator introduced the panel, which included Attorney General John Kroger and his new Government Transparency Counsel Michael Kron. After we heard the panel, Kroger stated that he was holding these meetings to get ideas from the public on how transparency should look. The moderator advised us of the rules: We would be given a whole 2 minutes before we would be cut off. Isn’t it amazing that when the government asks for our opinion we only get 2 minutes? Boy was I glad mine was only 2 minutes.

So, I got in line. As I was waiting for my turn I thought about what Ellen Miller must have felt like waiting to give her testimony at the Senate. I asked myself, “Is someone else going to say what I say first and then I will look like a copy cat? Am I going to get my turn? My back hurts from standing in this line.” At the same time, I was listening to the testimony. I noticed that just as people were getting into their stride the moderator would interrupt and tell them they only had 30 seconds left. I hate that. It seems to be the ploy of most government panels to rush the speaker and make them feel as though you are taking up their time. I’m next. How do I counter this ploy? So, I step up to the mic and I inform the moderator that I have timed my testimony and it is 2 minutes. Then I began.

“My name is Darrell Flood.

I live in Lafayette, Oregon.

I have had to become an activist for access. The attorney general’s manual refers to me as a “busy body” looking to embarrass local officials. I am looking for facts. But as long as the stereotype is quoted by your office, citizens cannot be taken seriously.”

The audience laughed, but what happened next surprised us all. “Where does it say that in the manual?” the Oregon State Attorney General John Kroger asked.

“Right up front,” I replied.

He said, “Come show it to me.” So, I approached the panel and took his book and opened it to the first page and pointed to the paragraph I referred to. Which he began to read aloud,

“Generally, the identity, motive and need of the person requesting access to public records are irrelevant. Interested persons, news media representatives, business people seeking access for personal gain, busybodies on fishing expeditions, persons seeking to embarrass government agencies, and scientific researchers all stand on an equal footing.”

Kroger explained that the statement was intended to place all people requesting public records on even ground. I said that may be true, but you are continuing a stereotype by having that in the manual. He then turned to Michael Kron and stated that maybe something could be done about that and Michael agreed.

Wow! Did that feel great. It showed me that given a chance anybody can make a change even if it begins with something small. Then the Moderator advised me that I still had my time. So I thanked him and finished my testimony. You can read the full version below.

The rest of the meeting went well as many people spoke of issues regarding public documents and public meetings. I heard another speaker state that he agreed with this “busybody” that all documents should be online.

So, it begins with a small seed in the minds of the concerned public that were attending the Oregon Transparency Hearings. The job has only begun. In the fall 2010 the Oregon State Attorney General John Kroger plans to put forth legislation to make Oregon more transparent. I will be there to make sure it is what the citizens want. Our goal is they implement nothing less then what Public = Online demands. Nothing less is acceptable.

Your “Busybody” from Oregon,

Darrell Flood

Testimony:

My name is Darrell Flood. I live in Lafayette, Oregon.

I have had to become an activist for access. The attorney general’s manual refers to me as a busy body looking to embarrass local officials. I am looking for facts. But as long as the stereotype is quoted by your office, citizens cannot be taken seriously. The state advises that government may pass on reasonable charges for access to documents, but no one can agree what reasonable is.

The City of West Linn charges $9.00 a page.

The City of Portland charges 25 cents a page. But, the Portland Fire Bureau charges $2.00 a page.

The City of Lafayette charges $10.00 for every half hour and 25 cents a page.

Lafayette charges $5.00 for each recorded cd. But, the City of Sheridan charges $20.00.

The State Legislative Administration office charges more that $30.00 an hour just to find out if they even have a document.

Reasonable is relative. I already pay for the computer, the person and the documents. So, why do I have to pay to get them? There is no standard.  I want legislation to determine what reasonable is.

My ideal would be that governments would create a web access site and all documents would live there. For $120.00 a year, each city could do this and it would hold more information than they could ever provide.

Public means all documents, on line, free of charge, to everyone.

I believe, if access were available, your office would have to hire a whole set of staff just to deal with the corruption that would be found. And that appears to be a reason citizens seem to be blocked from getting the information they want. People want the information they pay for and the people who are paid to represent them need to provide it.

Thank you for your time.

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  • Eric, I’m the founder of OregonLaws.org — a project that puts Oregon legal information online for free, using current best practices. I think we might be able to help each other out; drop me a line.

    Robb

    See also:

    http://delicious.com/weblaws.org

  • Eric Miller

    Our Oregon-based web development firm works with a range of state and local government agencies. The problem is not technological. The problem is a messy confluence of issues associated with privacy, regulatory compliance, security, budgets, and staff training…among other things.

    Example: You really don’t want the state Department of Human Services posting all their databases and documents on a $9.95/month commodity web host. For starters, we can’t put millions of social security numbers and Medicare/Medicaid records out for public access, for obvious privacy and HIPAA (health information security law) reasons. So now you’ve just identified a need for some sort of process or middleware layer to implement and manage these rules. That costs time and money.

    Another example: the state already has somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 public documents and 40,000 web pages on oregon.gov. That’s just the small subset of state government documents that have been made public, and it’s already difficult to find content. Make every document public and you’ve just made the haystack that much bigger.

    And as another commenter pointed out, this all costs money. It costs staff time to manually find documents in their systems, many of which are legacy (read: old) systems resistant to simple web-based approaches. And it costs serious money to modernize the web infrastructure to support larger document sets, and it costs serious money to maintain it properly. Oregon just doesn’t have this money right now.

    Our firm works continually with government agencies to make their work more transparent. But citizens need to realize that this is a very complicated topic that resists easy solutions.

  • rosemary

    If you needs some expert testimony, we have a great pioneer in Texas in our Comptroller, Susan Combs. In her fifth day in office she had all the financial ‘check book’ records on line for many of the state agencies. If we can do this in Texas, you certainly can in Oregon. Google her name and you’ll be impressed with what Comptroller Combs (Republican, of course) has done for transparency in TX.

  • Karenn

    That is wonderful that you are taking action! It is certainly confusing to see that all the different state and local agencies charge such different rates for public documents. As much as I wish they could be free to all, we must all realize that it takes an employee time (time that they must be paid for by someone) to find, copy and/or print the material. As we understand, government agencies are confined by budgets, and a small fee should be expected and paid . I will say again that it is just strange the disparate fees associated with the documents from different agencies. Good Job to take a stand and fight for transparency – it is needed more than ever!

  • Sarah

    This was really awesome dad! Yes, I actually took the time to read the whole thing. As usual, my dad is kicking butt and taking names, in a mind ninja sort of way. Way to go!!!

  • Melinda Broadwater

    Public does mean all documents on line free of charge to everyone.Now where is that money going that they charge?Is is going to food banks? To shelters? Where is it going????

    Darrell raises excellent points in his blog maybe he can find out where this money is all going..

  • Darrell,
    I was at that meeting, and you did a great job giving testimony.

    ..jon