Summer sunshine may be on its way to Oregon, but at the state capitol, it's still overcast and cloudy when it comes to accessing public documents.
Thanks to a trio of bills currently working their way through committee in the Oregon Legislature, that could change for the better.
The bills are aimed at overhauling Oregon's poor public records laws so Oregonians can peek behind the curtain at what their elected officials and state agencies are doing. Both Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Gov. Kate Brown have pushed for bills that would require agencies to respond more quickly to public records requests and to create a public records advocate to help the public, journalists and state agencies when disputes inevitably arise.
Last month, Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, and Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson proposed amendments to a third bill, HB 2101. The Society of Professional Journalists spearheaded an amendment to the bill which Richardson announced, calling for an independent committee to make recommendations to the state about possible changes to Oregon's many public records exemptions.
Under Oregon law, all documents used by state agencies and elected officials are open to the public, unless they fall under a few specific exemptions. But legislators have added more than 550 exemptions to the public records law since 1973, coming up with reason after reason why Oregonians shouldn't see what their government is doing.
The House added another this week, voting that legislators' email lists are exempt from public disclosure.
Some exemptions are clearly necessary. Nobody wants their Social Security number or health information released to the public. But other exemptions are used to keep the public, and journalists, from finding out what happens behind closed doors.
The committee would be made up of lawmakers, members of the public, the media and appointees by the governor, secretary of state and attorney general, among others. That committee would analyze each of those exemptions, line by line, and decide whether or not they make sense — then make recommendations to the state about possible changes or deletion.
It's something other states already are doing. Washington, Virginia, New York, Tennessee and Maine already use similar committees.
Oregon Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, argued in a recent letter to the editor that a sunshine committee isn't necessary because he and other state lawmakers are already starting to look critically at exemptions that keep elected officials and public bodies from releasing certain documents to the public. The Senate Committee on General Government and Accountability is currently reviewing each of the exemptions for possible revision, he said.
Riley chairs that committee, and we applaud him for his work to bring a little sunshine to the heavy clouds that have hung over Oregon's public records laws. While we encourage Riley to continue his work to review these exemptions, we don't see any reason why others can't do the same.
A more inclusionary democracy means that more Oregonians feel they have access to their own government. And after all, both the sunshine committee and Riley are seeking the same thing, in the end.
"If we are to be serious about public records reform," Riley wrote in his letter last week, "we must look critically at the exemptions public bodies are currently claiming when responding to requests for these records."
We couldn't agree more. Lawmakers should approve a sunshine committee for the good of all Oregonians.