New laws let the sun shine in

Government cannot be responsive to the people it serves unless the people know what their government is up to. Two bills Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed last week go a long way toward restoring some of the openness first made part of Oregon law more than three decades ago.

Oregon's public-records law was a model for the country when it was enacted in 1973. Central to that law was the presumption that government records should be available to the public unless the government can show a good reason to keep them secret. In other words, the burden of proof is on the government, not the public.

Over the years, successive legislatures have whittled away at the law, inserting exceptions and making it more difficult for the public — and the news media working to inform the public — to gain access to government records. The two measures signed last week mark a reversal of that trend.

One of the bills requires public agencies to respond without unreasonable delay to requests for public documents. Not only that, but agencies must acknowledge receipt of the request and indicate how long it will take to respond. And agencies must proved a written procedure for requesting public records and the name of one or more staff members to whom requests may be sent.

That's only fair, and a reasonable person might wonder why government agencies don't do that as a matter of course. The answer is quite simple. It means less work for government agencies if fewer requests are filed, so why make it easier?

Because good government is open government, even if it means more work.

The second new law requires agencies to release condensed versions of information otherwise protected by attorney-client privilege. That bill stemmed from a request from a member of the public for the results of a probe into possible mismanagement by the Klamath County School District.

The district had hired an attorney to conduct the probe, then refused to release either the results of the investigation or the attorney's advice to the school board.

Attorney-client privilege has a purpose, even when the client is a government agency, if the agency is suing or being sued and disclosure of documents might put the agency at a disadvantage in court. But in this case, no litigation was involved, and the investigation concerned possible mismanagement of an agency supported by tax dollars.

The new law does not require complete disclosure, but does mean a condensed version of the information must be made public.

These two bills were introduced at the request of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, and they will make it easier for newspaper reporters to do their jobs. Naturally, we support them for that reason.

But the ultimate beneficiary of public records laws — and open meetings laws — is the public. Ordinary citizens, not just journalists, can use the laws to keep tabs on the government their tax dollars support.

The result is better government, and that's a good thing for everybody.

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