Beef up public records law

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board January 06, 2014 08:00 am

If every action government agencies take on our behalf, and with our money, happened during a public meeting, there wouldn’t be much need for a public records law.

Obviously this isn’t the case.

Indeed, much of the government action, so to speak, happens outside the public’s purview. These actions almost always produce records, though — emails, memos and the like.

The notion that the public should be able to have a look at these records — “our” records, as we like to think of them — is hardly new. Oregon’s Public Records and Public Meetings laws were passed in 1973.

Yet over the ensuing four decades the trend has been to make it more difficult for people to see public records.

When then-Attorney General John Kroger asked a member of his staff to look into the matter in 2009, the effort turned up more than 400 exemptions by which state and local agencies can refuse to divulge public records.

Kroger tried to convince the Legislature to get rid of some of those exemptions and to make other changes, such as creating deadlines for agencies to respond to records requests, that would reverse the trend toward secrecy.

He failed.

So far, Kroger’s successor, Ellen Rosenblum, hasn’t shown anything like his enthusiasm for improving the emasculated public records law.

“I pay fairly close attention, and I haven’t seen a similar drive for transparency under the current Attorney General as Kroger put on,” said Judson Randall, the president of Open Oregon, a nonprofit that aims to educate people on the state’s public records laws.

This is troubling, and not only for we in the media who rely on access to public records to accurately, and thoroughly, explain to our readers how their tax dollars are being spent.

The public records law, after all, is not a law designed only to help journalists. Everyone is entitled to the same level of access to public records.

Besides advocating, as Kroger did, for reversing the trend of adding exemptions to the law, we’d like to see Rosenblum urge both state and local officials, when they’re presented with a public records request, to strive to make the records available rather than figure out how to interpret the law to make access difficult.

Too often that’s been our experience when making requests. Public officials have multiple tactics to discourage requests, including exorbitant cost estimates for reviewing records to ensure nothing needs to be redacted.

In reality, there are exceedingly few cases in which material in a public records needs to be blacked out to protect confidential information. 

Actually, we dislike that word, “confidential,” being applied to public records. Some parts of records might be exempt from public disclosure, but we’d come much closer to meeting the goal of the law if we stopped thinking of any of them as confidential, as though they were pages from a teenager’s diary.