Oregon's public records law has long seemed to us to have a curious lack of emphasis on the rights of the public.
We say curious because, after all, the public - which is to say, all of us - is mentioned pretty frequently in the law. We're right there in the title, even.
The concept of the law is admirable - that each of us is entitled to look at and listen to and basically to scrutinize, to whatever degree we please, the records that our public agencies produce.
These are, after all, public records. We paid for them, they were produced ostensibly on our behalf, hence we own them.
Too often, though, the way in which public entities apply the law,
including state agencies as well as cities, counties, school districts
and police departments, falls well short of the ideal expressed in the
Attorney General John Kroger found plenty of nits to pick in the law when he took office two years ago.
Last week Kroger unveiled a series of changes to the 38-year-old law that he wants the Legislature to make this year.
To his credit, Kroger, unlike several of his predecessors, thinks
government officials ought to have fewer reasons, not more, to keep the
public from getting its hands on public records.
He suggests the Legislature do away with about 100 of the 400 or so
exemptions under which officials can deny records to the public.
But Kroger's proposal, though it would improve the situation, doesn't do enough to ensure that the law lives up to its name.
Our chief complaint is that even with Kroger's revisions the law would
encourage public officials to presume that records should be denied to
people who ask for them.
To put it another way, the burden would remain on the citizen to prove
to officials, who are in essence trained to be suspicious, why he or
she should be able to see a document that, under the law, any citizen
is entitled to.
This is precisely opposite of how things ought to work.
Another major flaw in Kroger's proposal is that although state agencies
would have to comply with the changes as soon as Gov. John Kitzhaber
signs the bill into law, cities, counties, school districts and other
local government agencies would be exempt for two years.
Yet the public records that many citizens are interested in are held by those local agencies, not by the state.
Here's what we'd like to see from Kroger and the Legislature:
Instead of giving public officials 10 working days to decide whether to
give a citizen access to public records (plus the option of adding 10
more days to the waiting period), the state should emphasize to public
officials that the vast majority of public records are not exempt.
Further, Kroger should send a memo to each of those agencies reminding
officials that public records don't belong to the agency, they belong
to the public.
And he should stress that the revised law shields public officials from liability should they mistakenly release exempt records.
Oregon's public records law will fulfill its lofty aspirations only
when the typical response that a citizen receives, on asking for a
record, is "sure, come on over to the office, we're open until 5."
That happens occasionally now, but not nearly often enough.
The scenario that Kroger's proposal would enable - "I'll get back to
you in 10 days - or maybe 20" - makes the records law's purported goal
sound like a cruel tease.
Certain public records should be exempt, of course. Citizens shouldn't
have access to employees' personal data, for instance - the law should
not be an aid to identity thieves or stalkers.
But those records are a tiny fraction of the total. And if a citizen
asks for records that don't contain any personal information, it
shouldn't take 20 days, or 10, to pull the requested files.
The easiest thing for Kroger might be to suggest public officials
pretend they're librarians. Librarians might tell you to keep your
voice down, but they let you take pretty much any book in the place.