Joint Committee on Legislative Audits
Testimony by Governor Kate Brown
November 18, 2015
Good afternoon, co-chairs Devlin and Buckley, and members of the Committee. I am Kate Brown, Governor of Oregon.
When I assumed office after the former Governor resigned, I inherited an enormous backlog of pending public records requests. It was clear that transparency was not a priority in the prior administration. I changed that my first day on the job, and every day since.
Since I was sworn in, my team and I have worked to increase the level of transparency in state government.
In the 38 weeks since I took office, more than 100 open public records requests have been closed. We have released more than 350,000 pages of public documents. This represents nearly three thousand hours of staff work.
My office has also been cooperating with federal investigations into the activities of the prior Governor and First Lady, contributing to the legal review of nearly a million documents.
I am proud of the work the Governor’s office has already done regarding records. We previously established a protocol for processing public records requests that meet the standards recommended by the audit you will hear about today. Requests are submitted using an online form on the Governor’s website. Once the request is processed, all relevant documents are made available on our website so everyone can access the records provided.
As you may recall, I introduced a package of ethics bills in the last session to address the most immediate issues revealed prior to and during the gubernatorial transition. One of those bills, Senate Bill 9, focused on Oregon’s public records laws, policies and practices at the state level.
The bill directed the State Auditor in the Secretary of State’s Office to conduct a performance audit of state agency records retention and disclosure practices. SB 9 required that the audit examine a mix of small, medium and large-sized agencies to assess consistency -- or inconsistency -- among agencies in complying with, administering and interpreting public records laws. Before we could make meaningful changes, we needed empirical data to inform our work.
Importantly, the bill also called for the audit to identify best practices as a foundation for future action.
Today, I am pleased to appear before you with the mission of Senate Bill 9 fulfilled, and a completed audit. Our challenge is to implement the recommendations and continue this important work.
I will certainly let our state auditor Gary Blackmer and his team explain the audit, its techniques and outcomes. However, I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my thoughts.
As I’ve said before, state government belongs to its people, and transparency is a critical part of that.
The overarching conclusion of the audit indicates that our state agencies are diligent and responsive to public records requests most of the time. I am pleased, but not surprised, to hear this. But in responding to large or complex public records requests, the audit shows that agencies big and small are sometimes challenged to live up to expectations.
I am not surprised to hear this, either. The advent of new communications technologies are both incredibly helpful in the conduct of state business and present challenges in ways that the drafters of Oregon’s public records law could not have foreseen.
The audit confirmed that we have a lot of work to do if we truly value greater transparency as essential to good government.
According to the audit, agencies respond to routine records requests without issue 90 percent of the time. However, that remaining 10 percent, those requests that state agencies struggle to fulfill, can be the most confounding -- and as a result, the most notorious and damaging to public trust.
Regardless, the public deserves a swift and consistent response to requests for public records, and agencies need the tools and resources to be able to respond in a timely and cost-effective manner. Determining the cost to produce records, as well as timeliness, must be restructured in a way that makes sense, both for state agencies and the public seeking access to information. And we need better ways to ensure accountability.
Understanding and improving Oregon’s public records law will not be achieved with the audit alone. I will proceed on three fronts:
First, the Attorney General has convened her Task Force on Public Records. She has taken on the complicated and controversial task of reforming the 400-plus statutory exemptions. The audit’s findings and recommendations will both inform and complement the work the A.G.’s Public Records Task Force is doing.
Second, while that work is underway, I will act on the audit’s recommendations, using my executive authority. Before the legislature reconvenes, I will issue an executive order clarifying expectations regarding state agency records policies, response time and cost.
Third, SB 9 and the other ethics bills we passed in 2015 were an important starting point, laying the foundation for more improvements. I will continue my reform efforts in February 2016 with legislation to establish a neutral third-party entity to mediate disputes regarding public records between requesters and agencies. There are several models in other states to inform this legislation. Gina Zejdlik, my policy advisor, is currently working to craft this proposal and we would welcome your input or suggestions.
I am committed to strengthening transparency to restore public trust and get Oregon back on track. Thank you for your time today. I sincerely look forward to working together to bring about much-needed change.