We're pleased that Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson seems to share our distaste for the practice of public agencies using tax dollars to sue people who ask for records to which they're legally entitled.
The Associated Press, in a story published in an issue of the Herald last week, reported that this problem is not limited to Oregon. The story examined several cases, including the lawsuit the Portland School District filed in April against a parent activist and a journalist who sought public records about district employees who had been put on paid leave.
Richardson responded by announcing that his agency, which is responsible for auditing public agencies, will examine the Portland School District's spending. Richardson told The Oregonian that he ordered the audit in part based on complaints from Portland residents who are upset about the lawsuit.
Portland School District officials argue that they filed the lawsuit not to retaliate against the people who sought public records, but because Oregon's 1973 Public Records Law is not clear. The district contends that the only way to clarify whether the records are exempt from public disclosure is to sue.
The law includes appeal provisions that require legal experts — typically the local district attorney — to review contested public records requests.
In the Portland Schools case, for instance, the school district denied the records request from the citizen and the journalist. The two requesters appealed that denial, and Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, after reviewing the state law, overruled the district and ordered it to release the records.
In other words, Multnomah County's top legal official decided that in this case the law indeed is clear, and the record regarding school employees on paid leave are not exempt from public disclosure.
Considering the school district's stubbornness in this matter, we eagerly await the results of the state audit, and we hope Richardson remains vigilant in examining how public dollars are spent.