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Keeping the light on

Two bills scheduled for a public hearing today would put some teeth into time limits for responding to public records requests and require reporting that will allow the state to track how agencies are handling requests. Those bills and other measures making their way through the Oregon Legislature should pass.

Oregon law requires that agencies address public records requests within 15 days or “as soon as reasonably possible.” That vague language is an invitation to foot-dragging, and House Bill 2353 would allow the attorney general, a district attorney or a court to require an agency to pay a penalty to the requester if it’s determined there was “undue delay” or outright failure to address the request.

In 2017, the Legislature created a Public Records Advisory Council, made up of state and local government officials, news media representatives and a private citizen. The second bill getting a hearing today, HB 2431, introduced at the council’s request, would require every state agency to submit an annual report on how many public records requests it received and how many were still waiting to be fulfilled. This would give the state real data for the first time on how agencies respond to requests.

Public records laws exist to benefit the public. News organizations keep the public informed about the workings of government, but individual citizens can and do use the laws themselves.

Keeping those laws working for the public, rather than the bureaucracy, requires constant vigilance. These bills and others are part of that vital work.