Let the sun shine on government
A test of Oregon's open records law shows front-line staff need training
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today begins Sunshine Week, a national effort by media organizations and public interest groups to highlight the importance of open government.
The good news: Jackson County residents have a pretty good chance of getting public records from government agencies when they ask for them. The bad news: Requests may be met with puzzlement, suspicion or reluctance on the part of public employees.
Oregon has one of the strongest public records laws in the country, although lawmakers have chipped away at it over the years. The biggest weakness seems to be that too many public employees do not know the law and often assume that their job is to restrict public access, not facilitate it.
Better training for employees who encounter public records requests would go a long way toward making sure the law works as intended. The intent of the law is to allow the people ' ordinary citizens ' to know what their government is doing.
To test Oregon's public records law, the Associated Press Managing Editors organization conducted a public records audit in January. Volunteer auditors ' private citizens, not journalists ' fanned out across the state to ask for the same five public records from local governments. Statewide, only about half the requests were successful.
— In Jackson County, most agencies handed over the requested records promptly, as they are required to do under Oregon's public records law. But not in every case.
At the Medford School District, a staff member who was asked for a copy of the superintendent's contract was unsure whether it was a public record ' it is ' and declined to print a copy for volunteer auditor Jim McChesney until she checked with an administrator. She mailed McChesney a copy of the record the same day.
District Personnel Director Dan Zaklan, who gave the employee the go-ahead, noted that not all district employees know the law. When they don't, it's certainly appropriate for them to refer the request to a supervisor who does.
But employees who are likely to receive such requests ought to know the law. The people who run public agencies should make sure their employees are trained in how the law works and to know which records they handle are public.
More troubling was the response from a Jackson County Sheriff's sergeant who refused to provide concealed-weapons permit applications, which are public records under the law. His reasoning: The applications contain personal information, such as Social Security numbers.
That shouldn't be a problem, because state law allows personal information to be blacked out, as it should be, before a record is released. But the sergeant's response was to simply refuse the request. That's unacceptable.
The Mail Tribune participated in the audit project to help raise awareness of the importance of public record laws.
Newspapers naturally want to make sure the laws are followed. Reporters can't inform readers about the workings of government if they can't obtain records from that government.
But our interest as a newspaper is secondary. Journalists know the public records law well because they must to do their jobs. Members of the public ' for whom the law was written ' may not know that they have the right to request records from their government and to have those requests honored promptly.
Nationwide, most public records requests come from private citizens, not from reporters. That's as it should be.
It's your government, and you should be able to inspect its records.