By editorial board • 

Let’s hope records bill moves us closer to culture of transparency

When a public records denial is challenged in Yamhill County, it falls to District Attorney Brad Berry to issue a ruling.

Berry considers each challenge thoughtfully, professionally, expeditiously, but that’s not necessarily the norm. We can attest to that from our own experiences with other counties.

Public bodies vary widely in their responsiveness to open records law, and so do district attorneys. Similar requests can be handled very differently, depending on who they go before. 

A draft bill now on its way to the Legislature, thanks to a task force created by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, aims to deliver better and more uniform results. To that end, it calls for appointment of a public records ombudsman authorized to log, monitor and mediate records challenges around the state, and to educate parties on both sides in order to smooth the process and foster greater consistency and efficiency.

There are some serious issues on which the diverse group could not reach agreement.

For example, since its enactment in 1973, Oregon’s public records law has come to include some 500 exemptions, up from just 55 initially, and they are scattered throughout the state’s multi-volume set of codes. Also, while the law limits agencies to fees “reasonably calculated to recover actual costs,” agencies often establish fees, effectively keeping records out of reach.

The draft bill does little to address those issues. There is agreement on the need for changes, but not on the workings, wording or extent.

The task force is calling the recommendations on which it did reach agreement a first step toward establishing a culture of transparency in Oregon. If so, we applaud that.

Clearly, we lack a uniform framework for handling public records in Oregon at present. So it makes sense to create a better foundation.

Creating a records ombudsman’s office stands to help foster solutions in that regard. We see it as the capstone of the current initiative.

The draft bill also seeks to establish deadlines for agency responses, thus closing a widely abused loophole. It would give an agency five days to acknowledge a request and 10 days to either act on it or petition for an extension, citing grounds.

Already, local agencies are organizing opposition through their cadre of lobbyists. We hope elected officials will honor the task force’s work and not let political agendas gut a promising and well-reasoned initiative.

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