Sleep tight — but keep the light on

While you're not looking, legislators are tinkering with open government laws

In honor of Sunshine Week, dedicated to the importance of open government, here's just one example of a proposed exemption to public records laws making its way through the Oregon Legislature this session. Your elected representatives don't think you need to know when a pest control company reports a bedbug infestation to county health authorities.

Yes, you read that right. House Bill 2131 — which passed the House 55-1 last month — exempts reports of bedbug infestations in motels and other places from disclosure under state public records law.

You probably will not be surprised to learn that the bill has the support of the lodging industry.

The bill's sponsor says keeping the reports confidential would let county health authorities gather more information about the nasty little critters.

Maybe the public benefits of learning more outweigh the public's right to know. Maybe not. The point is not whether this particular bill is good or bad public policy, but that legislators are constantly tinkering with the laws that were enacted to make sure the public can find out what its government is up to.

This session alone, there are 11 bills dealing with public records and nine bills dealing with public meetings. Some aim to strengthen those laws. Others seek to weaken them.

Newspapers and other news organizations take a keen interest in this tinkering, and for good reason. Every exemption that gets slipped into the law — Oregon law already contains more than 400 — makes it harder for us to tell you what your government is up to.

We care about that because it affects our ability to do our jobs. But public meetings and public records laws are written for everyone, not just journalists. Anyone can request a public record or attend a public meeting.

It's no secret that professional news-gathering organizations have suffered cutbacks with the downturn in the economy and the explosion of the Internet. Reporters continue to keep an eye on government, but there are fewer of them than there used to be. That makes it even more important to preserve the right of every citizen to know what government is up to.

Open meetings and public records laws help us — and you — shine a light into the dark corners where government is doing the public's business. And where bedbugs may lurk.

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