Bills would limit Oregon public records law
By JONATHAN J. COOPER
Of the Associated Press
SALEM — Want to find out if a particular motel has bedbugs? ... Who won the lottery? ... How much a retired public employee is earning from a pension?
Some in the Oregon Legislature want to keep that information confidential, and several bills would cut off public access to those records.
A legislative committee voted Wednesday to exempt personally identifiable information about bedbug infestations from public records. The lottery and pension measures have not had public hearings scheduled, the first step toward becoming a law.
A 1973 law, passed in the wake of Watergate, made government records open to public inspection with certain limited exemptions, but lawmakers have pulled more and more records from the public domain in the four decades since. The number of exemptions that government agencies can use to avoid releasing public documents has climbed from 55 to more than 400.
The bedbug legislation, House Bill 2131, was requested by Multnomah County officials who said pest-control companies would only agree to disclose information about bedbug treatments if they could be certain their customers’ identities wouldn't be publicly released.
Counties don't currently collect information about bedbug infestations, so the public wouldn't be losing access to information that's currently available, Lila Wickham, Multnomah County's director of environmental health, told legislators. The county wants to know where bedbugs are most prevalent so they can target their prevention efforts.
“There's a stigma associated with bedbugs,” said Bruce Head of Pioneer Pest Management in Portland and a representative of the pest-control industry group.
It makes sense to protect the privacy of individual homeowners with bedbugs, said Judson Randall, president of Open Oregon, a nonprofit that provides education about Oregon's public records law. He added, however, that keeping information about infested motels private troubled him because consumers have a right to know.
“It just seems like government is trying to do all its business in private,” he said.
With the lottery, state officials routinely disclose information about winners and the store where prize tickets are sold. But House Bill 2734 would prohibit disclosure of that information without the winner's consent.
In other states where the issue has come up, supporters have said making jackpot winners’ names public could raise safety concerns. Critics have said that public disclosure ensures that the games aren't rigged.
Senate Bill 369 would cut off public access to information about pensions for retired public employees. The measure was introduced after two newspapers requested a database of pension payments and disclosed that former University of Oregon football coach and athletic director Mike Bellotti earned $41,000 a month from his pension.
The measure is aimed at protecting the privacy of retired rank-and-file public workers, said Arthur Towers, political director for the Service Employees International Union. It's not a top priority for the union this year, Towers said.
The debate over access to information has come up recently, former Attorney General John Kroger two years ago proposed overhauling the public records law and opening more records to public inspection, limiting fees and requiring government agencies to respond promptly to requests for public documents. But his proposal went nowhere amid strong opposition from local governments.