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Public records laws still wait for reform

Oregon’s love-hate relationship with its public records laws continues to frustrate government officials, the public and news organizations. A report from the state’s new public records advocate outlines weaknesses in the law and should provide lawmakers with direction on ways to strengthen the laws and clarify public officials’ responsibilities.

The philosophy behind public records laws is that government should conduct the public’s business in public. Citizens are entitled to know what their government is doing in their name, and should have access to records kept by government except in very limited cases when it is necessary to protect individual privacy. And yet, there are now at least 500 separate exemptions to releasing records, scattered throughout state statutes.

The public records advocate, Ginger McCall, has been on the job since April in a position created by the 2017 Legislature, which also tried to set clear time limits on agencies’ responses to public records requests.

A formal report issued last week by the Public Records Advisory Council included McCall’s own findings since she started, and they show that serious reform remains to be done.

Despite a requirement that agencies respond to requests within 15 days, for instance, language in the law allows them to take longer to produce records if it would not be “practical” to meet the deadline. That’s an invitation to foot-dragging in too many cases.

Agencies also look for reasons to exclude records from disclosure rather than honoring the intent of the law, which is to presume that records are public unless there is a specific reason not to release them. And too many jurisdictions are charging unreasonable fees for retrieving records, when the law limits them to assessing only the actual cost of complying with a request.

Mail Tribune reporters have run into demands for fees totaling thousands of dollars when they requested public records, and delays as well. A long wait is one thing for a news reporter, but it’s even more crucial for a member of the public who needs a record to file an insurance claim, stop the damage from identity theft or protect personal safety.

McCall notes that some jurisdictions charge a flat fee for all records requests based on the average cost of producing them. She argues that unfairly penalizes people who make the effort to submit narrow requests that take little staff time and rewards those who file sweeping requests for thousands of documents.

Education is vital, both for requesters and for public officials tasked with providing records. Too often, government officials aren’t familiar with the law’s requirements. McCall has trained 1,300 public employees so far. That effort needs to continue, but the laws need to be clarified, and should impose real consequences for unreasonable delays.

Oregon once was a leader in shining light on the workings of government, but no longer. Lawmakers need to overhaul the state system and see to it that the public’s business stays public.

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