Nelson: Bad news and good news for transparency

    First, the bad news: The federal government censored, withheld or claimed it couldn’t find records requested by the public or journalists more frequently last year than any time in the past decade. The good news: Oregon just hired a new public records advocate who promises to improve government transparency at the state level.

    The Associated Press analyzed public records data for fiscal 2017, ending in September, which included eight months of President Donald Trump’s administration. The results are not encouraging.

    Federal agencies released censored files or nothing at all in 78 percent of more than 800,000 requests, a record over the past 10 years. In one of every five cases, the government turned over everything requested.

    To be fair, the Obama administration was hardly a paragon of openness. After taking office in 2009 vowing the most transparent administration in history, Obama fell far short of that promise. His administration was a huge disappointment in that regard.

    The AP analysis and the government’s report were released for Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of public access to government information.

    The Trump administration said last week that it received a record number of requests last year, and that many federal agencies reduced their backlog of requests. That’s promising. The fact that the government spent a record $40.6 million in legal fees defending its decisions to withhold files is not promising.

    In a little over half the cases where requesters received nothing, federal agencies said they could not find any requested files. That’s a big concern, especially because the AP could not tell from the government’s own data whether people had asked for records that don’t exist or workers didn’t look hard enough.

    That’s one of the complications with requesting public records: Your request has to be specific enough that an agency can easily find what you want, but it’s not always possible for an outsider to know what to ask for.

    That’s where Oregon’s new public records advocate comes in.

    The 2017 Oregon Legislature created the position as part of several changes in public records law, including clarifying how long agencies may take to respond to records requests.

    Gov. Kate Brown’s choice for the state’s first records advocate is Ginger McCall, a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Labor who handled Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. It might sound like she comes from a defend-the-government point of view, but her background covers both sides of the issue. She ran an open government program at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which was instrumental in revealing the intrusiveness of the first body scanners developed for airport security. Her work was instrumental in changing those machines to be less invasive of personal privacy. McCall also served on an advisory committee for the National Archives and Records Administration, where she represented both requesters and the government.

    All of that experience should serve her well in what she told The Oregonian was her “dream job” — helping the public draft requests that will get them the records they want, and training government employees in the importance of public records.

    McCall starts her new job April 25. She seems ideally suited to the position, and I have high hopes that she will help make Oregon government more transparent.

    — Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at

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