By editorial board • 

Records law pushes right way but not very far or very fast

There are two facts crucial to understanding the tension surrounding public records issues in Oregon.

First, the state and local agencies that create, maintain and often attempt to hide public records possess no special right of ownership. Those agencies merely serve as custodians on behalf of Oregon residents.

Second, the media entities that most often seek to obtain and mine public records for insights into governmental workings enjoy no special right of access. Those entities merely serve as conduits on behalf of the same constituency.

The actual deedholders and stakeholders are Oregon’s citizens, voters and taxpayers. And as ultimate overseers of the enterprise, they are entitled to review its performance in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner. It should not matter whether they pursue access via media elements, interest groups, business entities or individual initiative.

If everyone treated the public’s business as fundamentally open and transparent, the tension would largely dissipate on its own. They don’t and won’t, of course, so we have to rely on regulations.

Serious issues have arisen since post-Watergate reform spurred codification of those regulations here in 1973, leading the Center for Public Integrity to rank Oregon a disgraceful 44th for transparency. To wit:

n Agencies have fought back against disclosure by slipping more than 500 exemptions into obscure passages of ORS having nothing else to do with the subject at hand. Those surviving a round of serious scrutiny need to be indexed, compacted, organized and incorporated into the code’s public records section.

n Many agencies have exacted outrageous fees, or used the threat of such, to thwart disclosure -- fees ranging up to, and even exceeding, $1 million. The law provides for waiver of fees for requests made in public rather than private or commercial interest, but some agencies claim exemption. Fee provisions cry for overhaul.

n Both state and local agencies have in-house legal counsel to represent them at every step, but record-seekers must retain private counsel or do without. Critics are lobbying for creating a gubernatorial ombudsman to provide free citizen guidance.

n News is one of the most ephemeral commodities on the planet, but current law establishes no timelines for responding to record requests. That oversight allows agencies to stall until an issue becomes stale or moot — or, in one recent case, until the Legislature could complete the four-month process of enacting a new exemption supporting denial. Timelines should be made as firm and tight as possible.

Last fall, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum created a task force, headed by in-house records advocate Michael Kron, to develop a reform package for 2017 legislative action. Released last week, it move in the right direction, but with great caution and circumspection.

The fee issue was relegated to future deliberations and the ombudsman proporal to gubernatorial consideration. The exemption issue was left largely at the initial indexing stage. Unless you count a strong statement of good intention, that leaves seeking tight but workable timelines that agency lobbyists are sure to oppose.

It’s a starting point, but much more needs doing to put Oregon right on transparency.

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