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Rights of the public to know are being eroded by laws

For 40-plus years, Oregon has claimed to have transparency in government. Public records and public meetings laws approved in 1973 are supposed to enforce the ideal that the people’s business should be done in public.

Unfortunately, the reality in Oregon has moved farther away from that ideal over the past four decades. Today, the state’s citizens have less access to information than they had in the past — and the obstacles that governments place in front of the public are increasing at all levels.

Every legislative session, lawmakers in Salem are lobbied to make new exemptions to the public records laws to allow government to withhold certain information from the public. These exemptions often seem well-intentioned, but their cumulative effect is to erode the public’s rights.

For example, the 2015 Legislature is considering a bill that will exempt from public disclosure the “name, home address, professional address or location of a person that is engaged in, or that provides goods or services for, medical research at Oregon Health & Science University that is conducted using animals other than rodents.”

Anyone could guess why animal researchers might want to keep their identities private, but the problem is that multiple classes of public employees all want the same right.

A sympathetic Legislature has piled on exemption after exemption, until just about everyone can find legal excuses not to tell taxpayers what they have every right to know.

The current status of public records laws in Oregon is shameful for a state that once prided itself on openness. There’s no better time to point out that fact than the week of March 16, which has been declared “Sunshine Week” by journalists and others nationwide. This is an opportunity to celebrate government transparency and also advocate for better public access to important information.

However, as we survey the current scene in Oregon, we see cities, counties and other agencies charging exorbitant fees for public records as a way to thwart access.

Typically, these government bodies will claim they must have their attorneys review the records before release — thereby enabling them to set an outrageous price and discourage the media from pursuing the documents in question.

In recent months, Pamplin Media Group reporters have been quoted prices for public documents ranging from $1,300 to $14,000.

Keep in mind that the public already has paid the salaries of the people who gather these records, and it already has paid for paper, computers, email servers and printers needed to produce the documents.

In some cases — where the identity of minors must be protected, for example — an extra layer of review is justified. But for the most part, these sorts of legal gyrations are thinly veiled attempts at delay and obfuscation.

The public waited for weeks for relevant emails to be released in the Gov. John Kitzhaber controversy. Now, many of those records are swept up into a criminal investigation, where they once again will be withheld from the public until the probe is completed.

One longstanding flaw in Oregon’s public records law is its lack of a hard deadline for a records request to be met. That means governments can delay releasing documents until pressed by a higher authority, such as the district attorney or courts.

Technology should make the handling of public records easier, but it also has given public officials new ways to shield their documents. Hillary Clinton's disappearing emails constitute just one example.

Nor have public records laws fully adapted to disruptive technologies.

When Airbnb came to Portland, an obvious question — and one that is of great public interest — is whether the company is paying appropriate lodging taxes to the city after Airbnb collects the money from hosts.

But the Portland Tribune has been unable to answer that question because the city chose to declare those records confidential.

A law written to exempt hotel records from public disclosure has been interpreted by the city and the Multnomah County district attorney's office to include Airbnb, which isn't a hotel at all.

Open government in Oregon used to have its champions among public servants, but they have dwindled with time. So now, as the media in Oregon tries to keep its readers, listeners, viewers and digital audiences informed, it confronts all these familiar obstacles: outrageous fees, unreasonable delays, legal maneuvering and a steady stream of newly invented legislative exemptions.

When these disputes over public records boil to the surface, it might appear to be a fight between the media and government.

But that’s an illusion. Public records don’t belong to journalists, bureaucrats or politicians. They belong to the public that paid for them.

Legislators and other officials need to keep that same public in mind as they deal with these issues of openness. No one benefits from a government that operates in the shadows.

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