Friday, January 15, 2010

Letter to Ombudsman regarding incident at PWB Jan 11

From: S.Stewart
Sent: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 1:31 PM
To: 'Mills, Michael (Ombudsman)'Subject: bad experience with document request

Dear Mr. Mills, City of Portland Ombudsman –

I had a distressing interaction this week while accessing public records at the Portland Water Bureau. You may have read about this incident in the Daily Journal of Commerce’s blog or on Jack’s Blog.

You can read my full accounting on my blog. I hope you will read the entire entry on my blog, as it was a complicated experience that unfolded over the course of 2 months and culminated with a surprising confrontation in a PWB conference room. The net is PWB had a staff person “supervise” me while I read two bid proposals and the corresponding evaluation sheets (clearly not records posing any security issues) and then charged me for that supervision. Which, in essence means they charged me for the time it took me to read the public records (2 hours = $55). I fully understand that PWB was within their rights to charge me for the staff time associated with supervision, but I take issue with their application of supervision.

This incident raises multiple questions, that need addressing to insure fair access to public records.

1) Are there objective perimeters established for the insistence of “supervised” reviews? In my case, I do not understand why PWB would pull a staff member off normal duties to watch me read the particular documents I was reading. They posed no security risk, and there was no danger that I could irreparably damage them. The application of “supervision” seems vulnerable to abuse, and could potentially be employed to undermine the public records access policy from which it is sourced. If a citizen can no longer read a public record without being charged by the minute for the time it takes her to sit and read it, then citizen access is in danger.

2) Are there guidelines for City staff to follow, outlining how Bureau staff should notify citizens when the records they seek will require a “supervised review”, and thus incur an hourly fee for reading time? In my case, I contend there was no notice that I was entering a “supervised” review. The bulk of the communication preceding my reading made no reference to any staff time other than that required to retrieve the records. The one email that indicated other staff time, mentioned only that a staff member would be assigned to “assist” my review, not “supervise” my review.

3) Is there a specified, predictable process by which custodians make decisions regarding fee waivers “in the public interest”? My constituents have long understood that non-profit organizations (particularly those offering the citizenry broad access to information), news organizations, and neighborhood associations (also typically offering information to the broader community) normally qualify for access fee waivers, with their “public interest” service being their ability to further disseminate information to a large number of citizens. However, my organization’s fee-waiver requests were all denied in the last 12 months. Additionally, the organization (Friends of the Reservoirs) that originated the records request associated with Monday’s incident has had most (if not all) of their fee waiver requests denied in 2009 and 2010. The sporadic blessing and denial of fee-waiver requests also appears vulnerable to abuse, potentially providing greater access to those organizations favored by Bureau managers and the Commissioners overseeing them, while potentially limiting access to those organizations that have fallen out of favor with management and elected officials.

I am not challenging the fact that Bureaus have a right to charge fees, that they have a right to supervise reviews, or that they have a right to deny fee-waiver requests. I mean to raise questions regarding the potential for abusing each of these measures, and how that abuse might harm citizen access to records.

Stephanie Stewart
MTNA Land Use Co-chair