Sometimes it takes a new generation to expose the complacency of their elders. A couple of University of Oregon School of Journalism students did that very well when they set out to test the state's public records law in a very creative way.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum last fall established a task force to consider reforms to the law, which has become bloated with exemptions and unresponsive to public requests since it was first enacted in 1973. The students, Kira Hoffelmeyer and Russell Wilson, asked every member of that task force, made up of state and local government officials, the news media and the public, for copies of all communications regarding the public work of the task force.
Hoffelmeyer and Wilson, who graduated in June, described the responses in an article in Thursday's Portland Tribune.
Most task force members responded immediately and in full, forwarding emails and other communication. Others — including representatives of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and the Oregon Association of Broadcasters — pushed back, saying they were exempt because their organizations were not government entities. Even longtime investigative reporter Les Zaitz was less than forthcoming, although he eventually complied.
The students' experiment highlighted some of the very weaknesses in the law that the task force was charged with addressing. Rosenblum has drafted proposed legislation to strengthen the law, changes she describes as a "first step toward an overdue reform of Oregon’s public records laws."
It is barely that.
When Oregon's public records law was first enacted in 1973 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, it was hailed as a model for the nation. Since then, it has become steadily less so. Starting with 55 carefully crafted exemptions, it now contains more than 500 — many of them granted by lawmakers to government agencies or industry groups that lobbied to keep their dealings secret from the public.
The existing law sets no deadline for an agency to respond to a public request, saying only that it must respond "as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay." Rosenblum's proposed bill would require an agency to acknowledge receipt of a request within five days and set a 10-day deadline to either comply with the request or state in writing that it is being processed and how long that might take.
Those deadlines are an improvement, but just barely. The proposal provides no penalty for missing them, and would still allow government officials to put off producing records indefinitely.
Another hurdle faced by many who request public records is that agencies will demand sometimes exorbitant fees to comply with a request. Existing law allows an agency to recover its actual cost of producing the record, which can include an hourly charge for employee time or, in the most expensive examples, the time attorneys spend reviewing the requested documents for potential exemptions.
It stands to reason that the fewer exemptions there are, the less time attorneys would need to spend reviewing requests. But Rosenblum's proposal does not address any of the exemptions, and does not tackle the issue of fees either.
Government can serve the public most effectively when the public knows what government is up to. The Mail Tribune was able to tell readers when the Medford Water Commission discovered lead in water lines because of a public records request. Another request revealed key details in the city of Medford's selection process for a new city manager.
Oregon's public records law badly needs updating. The attorney general's proposal, still in draft form, falls far short of what is needed, although she promises the task force will continue meeting and working on more substantial reforms.
Taking a hard look at those 500-plus exemptions would be a good start.