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Public records bills deserve passage

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 for the first time will allow the state to track how agencies are handling requests. Those bills and other public records 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.

The idea here is not to be punitive, but to set clear consequences for not meeting the intent of the law, which is to keep the public informed about what its government is doing.

In 2017, the Legislature created a Public Records Advisory Council and the position of public records advocate, who chairs the 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 Advisory 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 are responding to requests.

A third bill before the House Judiciary Committee today, HB 2430, would make the Advisory Council permanent. Otherwise, it will dissolve after next year.

Another new body created in 2017, the Oregon Sunshine Committee, has been examining the hundreds of exemptions to public records laws on the books to identify those that could be narrowed or removed. Some exemptions are legitimate — to protect personal privacy, for instance — but there are 585 listed on the Department of Justice website, and 30 bills have been introduced just this session to create more.

Public records laws exist for the benefit of the public. News organizations take a special interest because our role is to 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.