Oregon Senate bill calls for more timely response to public records requests

It may not seem like it now, but allowing the public to observe the inner workings of government once was a revolutionary idea.

"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth," President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804. "Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth."

But when the "avenues to truth" become clogged with roadblocks, the public must wonder whether decisions are governed by motives other than reason.

Two centuries after Jefferson encouraged opening those "avenues of truth," his revolutionary idea has seeped into the fabric of public opinion. A recent survey by DHM Research found 85 percent of Oregonians believe "every citizen should have complete access to information about their state government."

That's the ideal, but in practice, Oregon falls far short of that goal — and one of the biggest obstacles to government transparency is time. Current state law requires public agencies to respond to records requests "without unreasonable delay."

But members of the public, journalists, researchers and others who seek records in Oregon have waited months, and even years, to get public documents.

Senate Bill 481 aims to stop these unreasonable delays.

The legislation seeks to ensure state and local agencies respond and comply with requests in a more timely fashion.

It's a first step, but unfortunately a baby step when giant strides are needed to match the transparency guaranteed by other states.

The bill was crafted by a committee that included journalists and other advocates for greater transparency.

However, the consensus model used by the task force combined with the tremendous clout of local government lobbyists (who also had a seat at the table) put those advocates at a disadvantage. Rather than forcing the government to justify exceptions to transparency, they had to negotiate with government representatives to see how much they would allow.

One result of that backwards relationship is seen in the section on timeliness, which lays out benchmarks, not firm deadlines, for responses to records requests.

The goal of providing documents in a timely fashion is further undermined by a couple provisions.

First is a 15-day timeline. The bill suggests public agencies acknowledge a records request within five working days. Then, they get another 10 working days to respond with the requested documents or deny the request.

That means members of the public could wait more than three weeks to be told a request was denied. That's far too long.

Similarly, Senate Bill 481 includes a so-called "safety valve" provision, which lists various reasons an agency could delay complying with a request.

As a media group with newspapers in some small communities, we are sympathetic to local agencies whose limited staffs may need extra time. But, as written, the bill allows agencies to invoke the "safety valve" without explaining the need for a delay.

As a result, an agency could go well over three weeks without having to explain why records will be delayed — and that simple explanation would come only after the person making the request filed a legal appeal, most likely with the local district attorney.

Failing to require agencies to promptly explain a need for delaying the release of public documents will hurt both the agencies and the people seeking records from them.

Fortunately, there are a couple simple fixes.

First, lawmakers should reduce the 15 working-day window for proving records to 10. Agencies would have five days to acknowledge a request and another five to comply or deny. In addition, any agency invoking the "safety valve" must do so within those 10 days and explain it is doing so and provide an estimate as to when the records will be available.

Requiring a more timely and detailed exchange of information would put no undue burden on public employees, even in the smallest agency, than the current proposal. And it would instill cooperation rather than confrontation between government offices and the public they serve.

Moreover, such a requirement would likely reduce the number of appeals, which put a greater burden on both the requester and the government agency.

As the DHM poll demonstrates, Oregonians want to know how their tax dollars are spent. They expect the public's business to be done in public. That expectation can be met only if state law is strong enough to remove all roadblocks — including delay tactics — that stand between citizens and their public records.

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