We're in the middle of Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of the idea that government works best when it works in the open. So it's appropriate that this week brings legislative hearings for bills intended to continue the modest momentum Oregon has built over the last couple of years toward more government transparency.
We'll talk more about those bills. But first, it's important to take a step back to review the state's spotty record on transparency over the last half-century.
When the Legislature passed Oregon's public records law in 1973, it was based upon the basic idea that government functions best in the sunshine. That 1973 law at the time was considered a model for the nation.
That was then. Since then, the sunshine has dimmed considerably. Over the years, every time the Legislature has met, it has approved a handful of new exemptions to the public records law. Each exemption removes another set of records from the public view. Some of those exemptions have been legitimate. But many of them were not — and every fresh exemption dims the light by which Oregon citizens can examine the workings of their state government.
By this point, no one knows exactly how many of these exemptions have slipped into state law. The Oregon Department of Justice maintains on its website a list of exemptions; the list includes 585 items, and we're willing to bet that the list isn't inclusive.
But the 2017 legislative session included some modest wins for government openness, the first substantial victories in a long time for advocates of government transparency.
There's more work to be done, though, to reverse decades of backsliding. Some of the bills to be heard this week would help do that.
House Bill 2353 adds teeth to the law's requirement that requests for government documents be addressed within 10 business days or "as soon as reasonably possible." Under terms of the bill, if the state attorney general, a district attorney or a court determines that there was an "undue delay" (or an outright failure) in dealing with a request for public records, they can require the public entity to pay a penalty to the requester.
Now, to be fair, some of these delays can be linked back to short-staffed governmental bodies or requests that are needlessly broad, and the law offers some wiggle room in those instances. But it also is true that some governmental bodies delay responding to requests for records as part of a strategy to dissuade the party making the request. House Bill 2353 would add some risk to that particular strategy.
House Bill 2431, introduced at the request of Ginger McCall, the state's public records advocate, requires every state agency to submit an annual report on how many records requests had been received over the course of the year, and how many of those requests still are pending. The bill would give us a baseline about government responsiveness to records requests — and also could give state agencies an incentive to expedite those requests.
One of McCall's duties is working with the state's Public Records Advisory Council, which was created in the 2017 legislative session — but the legislation creating the council calls for it to dissolve after 2020. A measure in the current session, House Bill 2430, would make the council permanent. It's a move that makes sense: It took us nearly a half-century to get to this point. It'll take more than four years for us to bring back all the sunshine.
We're a little less enthusiastic about another measure, House Bill 2345, which potentially would cut records fees in half for any member of the news media. We don't mind saving a buck or two, but we're wary about the idea that reporters and editors would enjoy a cost break that's not available to members of the public. After all, these public records belong to the public. (mm)