Oregon government should adhere to a simple concept: The public's business must be conducted in public.
Attorney General John Kroger is on a mission to make that happen.
"When I travel around the state, it's very clear to me the people want a transparent government," he said.
Kroger is right.
Oregon's open-records and -meetings laws date back to the Watergate era, when state legislatures and Congress responded to the Nixon administration's secrecy by enacting laws that mandated openness.
Those laws provided limited exemptions. In the ensuing years, however, the loopholes have increased exponentially. "What you're seeing is a decrease in overall public transparency," Kroger said.
He and the Legislature have a number of issues to resolve in re-affirming government openness. We suggest those steps should include:
- Re-emphasizing that openness is the expectation. Secrecy should be the last resort, not the common practice.
- Narrowing the scope of exemptions and more clearly defining their uses.
- Updating laws to deal with e-mail and other technology. It should be illegal for an agency to circumvent a public-meetings requirement by holding a discussion via e-mail.
- Making computerized documents readily available to the public in electronic form and at minimal cost.
- Setting firm deadlines for agencies to respond to public-records requests.
- Placing state task forces and other work groups within the scope of the transparency laws.
- Making the state's open-government laws apply to every meeting and action of the Oregon Legislature.
Kroger already has taken a number of steps at the Oregon Department of Justice, including:
Designating a department lawyer, Michael Kron, to handle public-meetings and public-records issues.
Establishment of that position — government transparency counsel — makes more sense than having public-access matters spread throughout the department.
- Creating a Citizen's Guide to Public Records and Meetings. Its goal is to promote public understanding of the laws and encourage people to take advantage of their open-government rights.
- Making the full Public Records and Meetings Manual more accessible, including posting it online. That enables any public official or private citizen, using a computer or Internet-enabled cellular phone, to look up the regulations.
For example, the Statesman Journal consulted that manual during a Willamette Education Service Advertisement District Board meeting last year before warning board members that their discussion had veered into areas that, by law, must be discussed in public session.
In collaboration with the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, launching a statewide series of meetings to recommend changes in Oregon's government-transparency laws.
Kroger needs, and deserves, the public's backing as he pursues his statewide transparency initiative.
From city halls to the state Capitol, wide-open government should be the norm for Oregon.