FONT & AUDIO
Senate passes public records request response deadline
SALEM — The Oregon Senate has passed a bill to set a deadline for public bodies to respond to public records requests.
If passed by the House, the deadline would set a precedent in Oregon, where government entities effectively have an unlimited time to respond to requests. Oregon is one of the few states without a deadline.
"This is a transparency and government accountability bill that puts a timeframe on how quickly government agencies have to respond to public records requests," said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield. "It requires a timely response so that our government records are open to the public without unreasonable delays."
The legislations also can help prevent "the tactic of sitting on public records requests for a long period of time to avoid disclosing something," Beyer said.
Senate Bill 481, a product of a task force convened by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, passed by a 29-to-0 vote.
The bill requires public bodies to respond to requests within five days and furnish public records within at least 10 days, or provide a written statement explaining when the request will be fulfilled.
The legislation also charges the Attorney General's Office with cataloguing the state's more than 500 exemptions to the public records law, so it can be searched by the public.
"During more than a year of task force meetings and listening sessions with journalists, advocates, and the public—we heard loud and clear that our public records laws are in need of reform. This bill addresses the issue of lack of timely access to records and begins to address the confusion created by 40 years of piecemeal exemptions to laws originally intended to promote transparency," Rosenblum said in a statement Tuesday, April 18.
Vague language in existing law puts no enforceable deadline on public bodies to disclose records. Under the bill, if an agency fails to respond by the deadline, it is considered a denial, and the requestor may appeal the denial to the Attorney General's Office.
The law states such government entities must respond to requests "as soon as practicable without unreasonable delay."
Administrative changes ordered by Gov. Kate Brown require agencies to have a written protocol for those seeking to access records. Public bodies may set a fee for staff time and materials to furnish the records. The Department of Administrative Services, under the governor's order, also has developed a uniform fee schedule for those documents.
The attorney general's task force on public records law reform met for about 14 months. The task force has recommended simplifying and reducing Oregon's some 500 public records exemptions, but decided to postpone legislation on that effort to ensure a public records deadline could pass both chambers. House Bill 2101, which is pending in the House Rules Committee, would establish a new committee to start on that work.
Another bill, proposed by Brown, would create a public records advocate to educate and resolve conflicts over records requests.
Each session, lawmakers propose new exemptions. This year, for instance, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has proposed legislation to add new exemptions for the Office of Small Business Assistance. Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, proposed a bill to exempt lawmakers' mailing lists from disclosure to anyone but other political candidates.