This year's Sunshine Week — the annual celebration of the idea that government functions best when it operates in the sunlight — couldn't come at a timelier moment.
President Obama famously promised that his administration would be the most transparent in history, and then fell far short of that promise. At least President Trump has made no such promise, and no one expects his administration to even pretend it's interested in transparency — although the number of leaks coming from his administration in its first two months has been remarkable. (It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with leaks, which appear to be part of the landscape for any administration.)
In Oregon, efforts have been launched to reclaim some of the state's reputation as a leader in open government. It was just a couple of generations ago that Oregon was known nationally for the simple sweep of its laws regarding open meetings and public documents, and it all started from a relatively simple belief: The people of the state deserved to have access to their government.
That meant members of the public needed to be able to attend meetings of their governmental bodies, with relatively narrow exceptions. That meant citizens needed to be able to access documents that showed what their governments were up to, with a minimum of fuss and without officials deciding to charge outrageous fees.
But that was a couple of generations ago. Since then, especially on the public documents front, legislators have approved literally hundreds of new exceptions to the state's open government laws. Every new exception dims the sunshine that serves as the best disinfectant for government. The spread of email and other electronic forms of communication have created new challenges for those interested in making sure that government actions take place in the open.
Fortunately, there have been some promising recent developments in Salem. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has convened a task force to examine the state of open records in Oregon. The work of that task force has resulted in a promising proposal before the Legislature to create a public records advocate in state government to help cut through records disputes between citizens and government officials. The legislative proposal seeks also to clarify other issues surrounding open records.
The task force also found that some areas of its work were particularly challenging, in particular work to re-examine all those exemptions to the public record laws. Some of those exceptions are doubtless legitimate, but our hunch is that the majority are not. Nevertheless, it will take more time than was first expected to sort through those.
And, of course, every time the Legislature meets, some group is interested in adding to that list of exceptions. Our advice to legislators on this issue continues to be the same: Requests to remove yet another set of documents from public view need to clear a very high bar indeed. Inconvenience to the parties involved is not sufficient.
Meanwhile, other legislative actions may make it more difficult for the public to access governmental information of importance: For example, Senate Bill 210 would allow state and local governments to stop publishing public notices in local newspapers and to post them instead on websites operated by the Association of Oregon Counties, the League of Oregon Cities and the Special Districts Association of Oregon.
Obviously, newspapers have a financial interest in opposing this proposal. But there also is a public interest at play: Relegating these important notices to little-viewed websites that are under the control of these local governments would be a step toward dimming the sunshine that allows citizens to keep tabs on their government.