By editorial board • 

Bills improve public records,  but fix needed to move ahead

Public records bills recently passed allows Oregonians to believe their elected officials are serious about systematically improving their constituents’ access to government information. 

Unfortunately, two bills also create a bureaucratic quagmire that needs an immediate fix before any progress can be made. 

Senate Bill 481 stems from a public records task force created by former Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. It sets both a timeline and benchmarks for a public body’s response to a records request. Prior wording of the law included vague terms that allowed agencies to prolong their response for months. The bill tasks the AG with creating an online catalog of exemptions and also protects from liability anyone who discloses a record. 

House Bill 3361 establishes a state data officer who will maintain an accessible web portal of government information. 

SB 106 and HB 2101 each create a public body with some unique mandates, but with too much duplication in the overall missions of each to move forward. The stage could be set for competing committees and wasteful government expenditures and time. 

The first originated in the governor’s office and creates a statewide public records advocate to manage dispute resolutions in records cases statewide. This will be a great service in counties where elected officials don’t fully understand the state’s records laws, or just don’t care much. A Public Records Advisory Council — a mix of local and state elected officials, and representatives of news organizations — will make nominations for the advocate position.

But the bill stipulates the council to continuously review public records practices and make a biannual report. 

That mandate is also given to the Oregon Sunshine Committee, created under HB 2101, with a similar blend of voting members as the aforementioned advisory council, but this one under the umbrella of the attorney general’s office. The unique task of the Sunshine Committee is to review the vast number of exemptions from disclosure that have piled up over the years. But when it comes to policy, practice and inefficiencies, the direction and biannual report it must create reflects that of the advisory council.

This year marks the largest overhaul in public records laws in years. It’s about time the executive and legislative branches in the state take seriously the culture of open information for its citizens. All those involved in these four bills should be commended for taking that step.

But to continue the progress, the state must move past whatever political gamesmanship created the dueling committees and get on the same page for one, unimpeded council to review and recommend improvements to the state’s public records laws.

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