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Are politicians just giving lip service to transparency?

This coming July 4, the nation celebrates its 240th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The law was passed and signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to make it clear that documents created by federal public agencies should be made available to the public, unless there was good reason to keep them confidential.

Since then, most states have adopted their own laws (Oregon did so in 1973), ensuring the same practice is followed by state and local governments.

In an era when “transparency” has become a political buzzword (and everyone from Ted Cruz to Gov. Kate Brown is calling for more of it), you’d think the upcoming milestone would be reason to break out some fireworks. In reality, politicians love transparency until it applies to them. Then, all too often, they drag their feet and jack up fees.

That was the experience of the our Capital Bureau reporters, Paris Achen and Hillary Borrud, as they prepared to cover the recently completed 2016 legislative session in Salem for the Pamplin Media Group and EO Media Group.

In mid-December, the two journalists requested the 2015 calendars of 11 influential lawmakers (nine Democrats and two Republicans). The idea was to find out who the elected officials met with and whether such access resulted in key policy proposals in the 2016 session.

There’s no dispute that calendars showing how public officials spend their time on government-related duties are public documents.

But as of mid-March, none of the requested calendars had been made available. And while five of 11 lawmakers said they’d eventually cough up their calendars at no charge, the rest wanted money. Three of those lawmakers eventually agreed to waive the fees, but the final three — all Democrats — held firm.

Senate President Peter Courtney initially said the fee would be $158. House Speaker Tina Kotek wanted to charge $140, and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson asked for $147.

None of these charges were budget-busters for a news organization like ours, but that’s not the point.

Such information should be available to everyone, not just news organizations, and these lawmakers were saying that the public had to pay for the privilege of knowing who they were meeting with on public business.

That’s ridiculous.

We understand that government agencies need to recover their actual costs of complying with public records requests. But fees should be imposed only when the request doesn’t serve the public interest.

Knowing who has access to our lawmakers is essential. What’s more, there must be consistency in how requests are handled.

Our Capital Bureau’s reporting revealed wild variations in how much time lawmakers said they would take to get the information and the rate they wanted to charge (from two to 10 hours and from $23 to $80 per hour.)

One reason is that some lawmakers mingled their personal appointments with their public duties on one calendar and didn’t want the public to know when they got a haircut or snuck off for a romantic coast getaway. But it’s up to them — on their own time — to separate those items.

As Achen and Borrud reported, a November audit by the secretary of state’s office found that inconsistencies in the way agencies answer public records requests and charge for them contribute to the perception that the government wants to operate in secret.

When Brown took office amid a scandal over perceived influence-peddling by her predecessor, she vowed to restore public trust through an environment of openness.

“It was clear that transparency was not a priority in the prior administration,” Brown said in November. “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.”

Since then, lawmakers have twice failed to pass legislation that would set limits on the time and fees for responding to public records requests.

We expect Brown and lawmakers to do a better job next year. And we encourage voters to ask all candidates for public office for assurance that, should they get elected, they will make their public calendars available immediately and at no charge.

We can’t imagine anyone denying that request, but we’ve been surprised before.

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