By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

A quest to improve public records laws

Legal issues involving access to Oregon public records are complex, often contentious and sometimes subject to costly appeals and litigation. Last year, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum formed the Public Records Law Reform Task Force “to review and recommend improvements to Oregon’s public records laws.”

For me, as a representative of Oregon newspapers on the task force, one of the most interesting areas of discussion is the possibility of a statewide public records ombudsman’s office.

The task force includes representatives of state agencies, local government, the Legislature, media and the public, among others. Its meetings and considerations are documented in great detail on the Attorney General’s website, and its work soon will produce initial recommendations for legislation in the 2017 legislative session.

But that’s just the start to a long process.

It took 40 years to produce today’s morass of 500-plus exemptions to public record disclosure. People requesting records, and those who control access, often have difficulty even agreeing on what is a public record, much less when confidentiality is permitted or when the “public interest” takes priority. There are regular clashes related to the time and cost for producing requested records; there is angst within government about overly-broad records requests; there is inconsistency in the language and contradiction in the interpretation of our web of records laws.

Many of those laws are compiled in a single section of Oregon Revised Statues, including an ever-growing list of allowed exemptions. But hundreds more provisions are sprinkled through ORS, and one task force recommendation may be to catalog all those exemptions to at least provide easy access to the laws that govern access to the records.

Mostly, Oregon public agencies respond quickly and favorably to simple records requests, while struggling with demands for thousands of diverse records. On occasion, however, agencies or individual officials misinterpret the law or simply choose to ignore it

When records are denied, there are various avenues in current law for appeal to district attorneys, the attorney general and the courts. However, I think a statewide ombudsman’s office would provide greater independence, expertise and consistency in the appeals process, not to mention being a statewide source for education and advice to the public and government officials.

Other states have created such offices, some with great success. At this point, there is cautious optimism among various interests that Oregon could benefit from a well-designed plan for statewide public records ombudsman services.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS