Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Idea...

During my time as the Land Use Chair of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, I have requested access to a wide range of publicly owned information on behalf of my neighborhood. I am dismayed to report that despite the era’s technological advances, a citizen’s access to information appears to be growing more and more limited. I have a proposal regarding fee waivers and the lack of clarity posed by the phrase “in the public interest.” At the heart of my proposal is the belief that every community should have multiple portals through which information can be accessed free-of-charge, as fees prove to be a significant factor limiting the public’s access to said information.

Information fosters civic engagement. Engaged citizens provide invaluable support to city and state initiatives. In 2009 alone, Solarize Portland, the SE Tool Library, and massive neighborhood clean-up events exemplified how engaged citizens can generate incredible support for government initiatives, amplifying the effectiveness of those initiatives at little or no-cost to government. An informed citizenry is a smart investment in a volunteer-labor force that returns tangible dividends.

But who decides what information will engage or interest the public? More often than not, the decision about what to publish is left to the bureaucracies generating the information. A structured dialog between government and citizenry is impractical here, with any real frequency. However, community-based non-profit organizations can, effectively, telegraph true citizen-interest from the community to the government. Community-based non-profits are on the ground with the citizens, and they are, often times, formed around a very current public interest. Made-up of citizens themselves, these organizations can act as a first-level filter on defining “in the public interest” from the community’s perspective. When a request is backed by a community organization, and the information is intended to be shared with the community (i.e. the members of that community-based organization), arguably that information could be regarded as meeting the standard of “in the public interest”.

Providing communities access to the public information they deem valuable, without the limiting burden of onerous fees, is a reasonable investment of public funds. Community-based non-profit organizations could provide one portal through which information could flow from government to citizens, according to the values shared by both government and citizen (those shared values being free access to public information without over burdening either party with unreasonable associated costs). My specific proposal is that all information access requests generated from within a community-based non-profit be granted codified relief from associated fees, especially those fees levied for supervised reviews, reviews, research, and staff time.

For most government agencies, the funds required to fill public records requests from community-based organizations will represent a relatively small portion of their existing “public involvement” budgets. As an example, consider the Portland Water Bureau public-records requests for a one year period in comparison to its “public involvement” budget for a one year period. Recently, the Portland Water Bureau conducted a “snapshot” study of ALL public records request activity at their bureau for fiscal year 2008-2009 (including requests for correspondence, email communication, publications, maps, billings, customer account water consumption data, and financial documents); the bureau amassed $37,000 (described as “staff time” and “resources”) in that one year period. This bureau’s public involvement budget was listed as $614,759 for the one year period of fiscal year 2009-2010. All of this bureau’s requests represent just 6% of their public involvement budget. As information is key to getting the public involved and engaged, I believe it is a reasonable request to allocate some portion of funds to subsidize public access via community-based organizations.

In Portland, Neighborhood Associations are uniquely integral to the city’s proper functioning, yet they are completely un-funded and they operate solely on volunteer labor and donations. Neighborhood Associations are active participants in land development processes in our city, including long-range city planning and current code enforcement. Neighborhood Associations keep the land’s “use” grounded in the needs and desires of the citizenry. Neighborhood Association volunteers carry community issues down to city hall, meeting face to face with Commissioners and decision makers, providing valuable ground-tested knowledge about life in this city. Often our efforts help keep decision makers current and informed with a wide variety of perspectives. Additionally, all of the volunteer-based initiatives I cited earlier are direct outgrowths of Neighborhood Associations. I am a volunteer with my neighborhood’s Association, which represents roughly 10,000 people. Our board and our meetings are open to the public. We field requests for support and information on any number of issues that make their way to our meetings. Portland’s Neighborhood Associations serve as communication tools between the citizens and their government, arguably acting as a filter for defining what meets the standard of “in the public interest”. I propose that Neighborhood Associations be granted codified relief from public information access fees, especially those fees levied for supervised reviews, reviews, research, and staff time.