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Public records law a little stronger now

Oregon has taken a small step toward enhancing public access to government records.

School districts, local governments and state agencies now face a potential $200 penalty if they ignore a request for public records or take too long to respond.

This year’s Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 2363, which became law when Gov. Kate Brown signed it on June 4. It toughens the 2017 law that established deadlines — usually 15 business days — for handling public records requests.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said she introduced HB 2363, in collaboration with the Society of Professional Journalists, because “journalists and the public continue to see requests ignored or significantly delayed.”

Nick Budnick of SPJ’s Oregon Territory Chapter told lawmakers, “Agencies face zero consequence for violating the flexible timelines in Oregon’s law.”

Why does this matter? Power, a lawyer, gave real-life situations in her legislative testimony: “Delays in obtaining police reports, for example, can make it difficult for victims to obtain insurance payments, limit the damage of identity theft, pursue civil litigation, take precautions to protect their personal safety, or vindicate their rights in a variety of other venues.”

Journalists can provide countless examples of how examination of public records has revealed dubious actions by government — but also how officials stonewalled to keep secret their actions or inactions.

The Legislature deserves credit for recognizing the need for HB 2363.

A $200 penalty, paid to whoever requested the records, might not be a big deal for many government agencies. But it should encourage them to neither ignore nor drag their feet on public records requests.

The new law is not onerous; state law contains a “safety valve” provision for small or overworked jurisdictions.

The penalty is not mandatory. The law states that the attorney general, the district attorney or a court “may require” a penalty. The AG or DA also could reduce any processing fee charged to the requester instead of imposing a penalty.

Still, some governments — including the city of Eugene —questioned the legislation. A Eugene submission to legislators said, “Ultimately we are concerned about the underlying issue, which is that most local governments are underresourced for responding to public records requests, especially under the new state requirements and the demand keeps growing.”

Eugene receives more than 4,000 public records requests a year.

However, a foundational principle of American government is that the public has a right to know what’s going on. Prompt, accurate access to public records should be the norm, unless there is an overriding and lawful reason to withhold a record.

We recognize that cities and other government bodies worry about the time and staff training involved, as well as the costs of maintaining an up-to-date, readily searchable website and other resources.

But public records are a core responsibility of government, not a side chore. Elected officials and management have a duty to set that tone.

We would add that the public has a duty to be clear and specific in records requests and to couple persistence with politeness.

We hope HB 2363 is rarely needed. But it now is the law, just in case.