The Oregonian ran a hard-knuckle story this weekend exposing TriMet scheduling practices that allow overtime-hungry bus operators to work as many as 22 hours in a single day—and also joining concerns about that policy to crash reports and complaints from riders about drivers falling asleep at stoplights.
Everyone's rightly stirred up about it. But it's also worth pointing out the hoops TriMet made the reporter, Joe Rose, jump through in order to get the public records that served as the basis for his piece: Thousands of dollars in fees and stonewalling so intense the paper had to get the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office involved. The paper detailed the process in an editorial posted last night.
Over many months, Rose requested records pertaining to a runaway MAX train, and bus and rail operator work schedules. He met roadblocks by the transit agency, which argued the documents did not exist as he'd requested them—that they would need to be created and thus were not public documents available for the asking. So Rose and his editors capitulated and asked for the data as TriMet kept it. And TriMet's reply was another roadblock: to convert its data into PDF files, forcing a laborious process by Rose and his associates of "cut-and-paste" searching across some 8,000 pages. Oh, and The Oregonian would ultimately pay $500 for the privilege, pushing its total TriMet tab for records to about $2,400.
Significantly, the release of information pertaining to the runaway train required the intervention of the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office. Despite TriMet's initial confusing reports about whether a Yellow Line MAX train had even crashed—it did, into an abutment, with two passengers on board and withstanding $60,000 in damage owing to a sleeping driver—TriMet was forced to abandon its position of cloaking the event as a personnel matter under investigation. Then-District Attorney Michael Schrunk decided the public had a right to know about it, ordering compliance with The Oregonian's request, and noted in his May 3, 2012 report: "This was an extraordinary event with seemingly very little investigation."
Oregon public records law makes noises about transparency. But with loopholes allowing for "cost recovery" for complicated requests, the rules give agencies an easy and legal way to hold things back by making things more complicated than needed and, thus, too expensive for smaller operations and actual citizens to obtain.
It's good the daily in town still has the money to chase this kind of document dump and pay a lawyer for a court fight, if it came to that. We've had to do it before, too. But not everyone can, and don't think public officials in this state aren't well aware of that advantage.
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