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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Shine on, government

Shine on, government

Exemptions to Oregon’s public records law keep turning up at the Attorney General’s office, like spring dandelions in an otherwise well-tended lawn.

And they’re about as welcome, in our estimation.

Fortunately, Attorney General John Kroger shares our distaste for these obstacles which, far more sinister than common weeds, thwart the public’s legal right to figure out what the government is up to.

Kroger wants to pluck some of these pests from Oregon’s law books. We’ll be watching his efforts with keen interest.

Kroger is working with the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association (ONPA) to craft a set of suggested changes to the state’s public records and public meeting law. He’ll send the list to the Legislature when it convenes in January.

Kroger said that 30 years ago, there were about 50 exemptions to the law that entitles Oregonians to peruse all manner of records produced by government agencies.

Today there are about 450.

Well, that was the tally a week or so ago when we talked with Kroger, anyway.

“We’re still counting,” he said.

This tide of obfuscation is insidious, with lawmakers tossing in a bunch every session.

The result, as Kroger aptly puts it, is a “significant net decline in government transparency.”

Which helps to explain the commensurate dwindling in the public’s trust of the people who spend our tax dollars.

The increased withholding of public records is not the only disturbing trend, though.

We’re concerned as well about school boards, city councils and other public bodies whose members sometimes act as though the public meetings law allows them to make controversial issues in private.

In fact Oregon’s law, although it enables government officials to discuss certain topics in meetings closed to the public, specifically forbids officials from making decisions during such sessions.

Kroger, whose office along with the ONPA is sponsoring a series of six public meetings across the state this spring (the last one set for June 10 in Medford), said he’s heard a litany of complaints that indicate many government officials either don’t know the law, or flout it.

Kroger believes it’s crucial that the state educate public officials about their legal responsibilities regarding records and meetings.

We agree, although we don’t think ignorance of the law is a legitimate excuse in this instance.

After all, the Attorney General’s manual on the public records and meetings law — a fact-ridden document we refer to frequently — is available online.

We hope Kroger’s proposed revamp will include something generally absent from the current law: penalties for public bodies that don’t comply.

 
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