Portland executives consider tightening public records law after $250,000 paid to records defender

Some Portland leaders want to bolster Oregon’s public records law after the city was forced to hand over voter contact information and pay a longtime records advocate $250,000 in court costs attorney.

The payment stems from a 2017 filing by Oregon attorney Jeffrey Merrick. Merrick researched the names and contact information of Portland residents who had used the city’s single point of contact system to report homeless encampments to city officials. Merrick said he wanted to use this information to form a homeless advocacy coalition.

City Hall in downtown Portland.

Laura Klinkner/OPB

The city denied the request. Merrick filed a complaint. After a years-long legal battle that involved several rounds of arguments before the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and an appeal to the Oregon Court of Appeals, Merrick finally obtained both records and, on Wednesday, a quarter of a million dollars to cover attorney’s fees. The city ordinance approving the settlement agreement says $114,500 will go to Merrick and $135,500 to his co-lawyer with the firm Dunn Carney.

Before approving the deal on Wednesday, council members said the deal — and the costly payment — speaks to the fine line city officials must walk between being transparent with public records and protecting the public. privacy of voters.

Senior City Attorney Denis Vannier has made it clear that Oregon law currently prioritizes transparency.

In that case, Vannier said, the district attorney ruled that the relevant sections of the public records law — including the exemptions for “personal information” and “information submitted in confidence” — do not apply. did not apply. City lawyers said that means people who write to the city council could very well have their personal information passed on if someone asks.

City attorney Robert Taylor said if city leaders don’t want to release the personal information of voters or public employees, they should push for a change in state law.

“If the members of the public or the city council are not comfortable with how the law works, our recourse is really to go to the legislature and ask them for help because they ultimately write the law on the public records,” Taylor said. “It really is the cure.”

Defenders of the Portland Public Records regularly criticize the city attorney’s office for what they claim are unlawful denials and excessive redactions. Senior Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Johnston was forced to withdraw her appointment in November from the State Public Records Advisory Board, a group tasked with enforcing Oregon’s public records law, after the outcry from the Oregon Open, the League of Women Voters of Portland, the ACLU and the Society of Professional Journalists. In their letter, the Society of Professional Journalists cited a “worrying rise in secrecy” and a legacy of Portland pushing “pro-secrecy legislation in response to rulings that found the city in violation of the Oregonians Records Act.” .

Merrick said he believes illegal denials of public records in Portland are a systemic problem.

“The only difference between me and all the other citizens is that I had the knowledge and the ability to fight it,” Merrick said. “Because I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who have filed one in a public record – a legitimate record – to the city and they get a denial, and they say what the hell is it? what I’m gonna do, I’m not a lawyer. They just take it.

Safety Concerns

But in a political time when doxing and death threats against city workers are not uncommon, commissioners Mingus Mapps and Jo Ann Hardesty said they believe Oregon’s public records law does not did not go far enough to protect employees and voters.

“I think we’re going to have to work with the legislature to really change the public records law to meet the political realities in which we operate,” Hardesty said. “We are not the same people when the Oregon Public Records Act was written.”

Hardesty said her office was inundated daily with requests for public records, some of which she said were inappropriate and “not in the public interest.” She specifically called out a recent media request for information for grant applicants.

“Requests for public records are used as a fishing expedition for people who try to paint people — especially people of color and women — in a simply blatant way,” she said.

In response to Merrick’s lawsuit, Deputy General Manager Carmen Merlo said the city now requires public records responders in every office to receive mandatory training and involve the city attorney’s office in all major inquiries.

While Merrick said he was momentarily encouraged by these reforms, he logged out of the meeting, unsure that his lawsuit was making City Hall more transparent.

“It was my hope that the settlement would encourage the city to do better,” Merrick said. “I was hoping that maybe it would do something for the city, and then the next breath I hear, what we want to do is create more exemptions.”