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Big Money for Public Records?

Commissioner Rob Handy and his attorney Marianne Dugan have been told it will cost them $3 million to get the public records they have asked for from Lane County, Dugan says. She has filed a suit on Handy’s behalf in Lane County Circuit Court seeking an order compelling the county both to release the documents and to compensate for the costs and legal fees.

The public records request arose after Lane County called a May 3 emergency meeting to decide to release information about a different public records request. That public records requests was made in regard to allegations made in a letter from attorney Alan Thayer, representing Eugene businessman and EWEB Commissioner John Brown. The letter alleged that Handy illegally asked for contributions for his debt that came about as a settlement over a timber company-financed open meetings lawsuit. 

Handy said he checked with the county’s finance department before asking supporters to assist with the debt.

Dugan says the county claims that it has no public records requests asking for Rob Handy’s finance department information, “So the question is, how did Thayer get those documents to attach to his letter?” she asks.

Dugan says the county has also “completely stonewalled on giving us records” about the emergency meeting. Under Oregon law, in order to have an emergency meeting with less than two hours’ notice the justification for the emergency must appear in the minutes. The minutes for that meeting have yet to appear on the county website with the minutes for other board meetings. 

District Attorney Alex Gardner has called the request “incredibly broad.” The public records request was originally rejected by Stephen Dingle, senior assistant county counsel. Dugan and Handy then appealed the rejection to Gardner. Gardner is not only the district attorney, he also serves as the county counsel. After not getting a response back within seven days, Dugan filed the public records suit. 

The county has argued that it would not release some of the documents under a criminal investigation exemption. Dugan says some of the documents asked for were created before the letter from Thayer arrived at the county, and so before any investigation.

Dugan writes in an email to Gardner, “After reviewing the May 3 emergency meeting, I see that Ms. [Liane] Richardson states that it is ‘regular policy’ to choose not to invoke the criminal exemption when a public official is the target of the investigation.” 

She adds, “At the emergency meeting the county already chose to waive the criminal exemption with regards to this investigation.”

Outgoing Oregon Attorney General John Kroger had spearheaded an effort to update Oregon’s public records laws, limiting fees and putting time limits on how long a government agency can take to respond to a request. Open records advocates are hopeful incoming AG Ellen Rosenblum will continue that effort.