ACLU: Oregon city sues BLM activists over public records fee

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BEND, Ore. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union says it will represent a social justice organization in Bend, Oregon, in a lawsuit filed by the city after months of wrangling about how much the nonprofit should pay in fees related to a public records request.

The Central Oregon Peacekeepers requested internal city documents related to a clash between supporters of then-President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter activists at a park last October. The request also asked for any records that show the general relationship between the Bend Police Department and groups that oppose the activities of social justice groups such as the Peacekeepers, The Bulletin reported Friday.

The city called the request overly broad and charged the Peacekeepers $3,600 in fees for 65 hours of staff work to assemble them. Bend officials declined to release the records for free under a public interest waiver and instead offered to reduce the fee by 25%.

“It shouldn’t cost two months’ rent for an activist to see what their government is doing,” said Alan Kessler, an attorney from ACLU of Oregon representing the Peacekeepers. Kessler argues that the city is acting in “bad faith” and is charging the racial justice advocates differently than other requestors.

The lawsuit stems from a decision by Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, who reviewed the case at the Peacekeepers' request and found the city's fee was unreasonable. Under Oregon law, parties can appeal public records disputes to county district attorneys.

The city says it is now worried that with his decision, Hummel created a new standard for public records fee waiver requests that is contrary to state law and sets a precedent for groups demanding the city waive fees in future large record requests.

“Because we process requests in a non-discriminatory manner, a new standard for fee waiver requests could mean City staff have to perform free work for other groups or individuals with very different political or social views from the Peacekeepers,” Mary Winters, the city’s attorney, wrote in an email to The Bulletin. “The issue of the standard is important enough to take to court and get a clear answer.”

“This issue is not about (the) content of records, but is a relatively straightforward and honest disagreement on the reasonableness of fees and whether the City has discretion to charge fees for a broad and expansive request in this case.”

The ACLU filed a response to the city's lawsuit in Deschutes County Circuit Court on Wednesday and filed a counterclaim asking for Bend to pay its client's legal fees.

The Peacekeepers initially requested the public records after Trump supporters and racial justice activists got into a brawl at a Bend park on Oct. 3. The melee began when an activist stole a Trump flag from a Trump supporter. Multiple people threw punches and some sprayed Mace. Police also confiscated two guns.