Lawmakers chip away at Oregon’s public records law

Brad Cain

Associated Press Writer

SALEM, Ore. (AP)–Passed at the height of the Watergate scandal, Oregon’s 1973 public records law was designed to rebuild people’s confidence in government by allowing unfettered public access to government documents.

But in the past 30 years, Oregon legislators have chipped away at the law by approving more than 300 individual exemptions that put records out of the reach of the public.

Open records advocates say those exemptions have undermined Oregon’s shine-a-light-on-government law by putting a cloak of secrecy over all manner of records.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, if you start taking away too many pieces, citizens will no longer be able to see the big picture,” says state Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches.

Metsger, a former TV news anchor and reporter, recently argued unsuccessfully against a bill that will prevent public disclosure of the names of animal researchers at Oregon Health and Science University.

That record-closing bill, which was approved by the Senate and now goes to the House, is part of a trend of lawmakers granting private interests and government agencies exemptions to the open records law.

Many of the exemptions are broad-based, having to do with protecting information such as student records, banking information, ongoing police investigations, juvenile crime records or trade secrets in business and industry.

Some are more specific, such as child abuse reports by local police and state agencies, certain investigations of police officers and school teachers, marriage licenses and applications and certain reports of employee complaints about workplace safety.

One of the leading proponents of the open records law, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer, said that even with the various exemptions, Oregonians are well-served by the law.

“Oregon is still one of the most open record states in the nation,” said Frohnmayer, who as a Common Cause volunteer and UO law professor helped the 1973 Legislature draw up the open records law.

The Oregon law is noteworthy because it is based on the premise that government records should be open unless someone can make a compelling case to close the record, said Frohnmayer, a Republican who is a former state attorney general and former state representative.

Further, he said, the law allows citizens to request a record without having to offer any official reason why they want it; and it sets up a formal process allowing people to request records from state or local officials without having to hire a lawyer to sue for a record.

A spokeswoman for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Virginia-based watchdog group, said open records laws vary widely and that it’s difficult to rank the states in terms of openness.

“But the law seems to be working better in Oregon than in many other states,” spokeswoman Rebecca Daugherty said in an interview.

The state with the most stringent public records law appears to be Pennsylvania, where many records are presumed closed unless otherwise noted and where government officials “believe it’s an outrage for the public to be able to see what they are doing,” Daugherty said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Florida, aptly called the “Sunshine State,” where no record can be kept secret unless government specifically passes a law making that record off limits to the public, she said.

In Oregon, one of the more recent fights over records came in 2003 when local governments and utilities pushed for a bill to close records pertaining to plans for protecting utility facilities and other key installations from potential sabotage.

Gary Bauer, spokesman for Northwest Natural, the Portland-based gas company, argues that the public interest would be served by closing those records.

With the United States under a continuing threat of terrorist attacks, “it really doesn’t benefit the public to have those as part of the public record,” Bauer said.

In the end, the 2003 legislation was narrowed following news media protests that it would have given government bodies and utilities too much authority to decide what could be kept secret.

The group that led the opposition to that bill, the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, said it will continue to fight what it considers overly broad attempts to make more records secret.

To give the public a better idea of how well state and local officials handle reports of child abuse, the association this year is backing a bill to open up child abuse records that currently are closed.

The key is educating lawmakers and the public about the value of keeping records open to inspection by the public and by news media watchdogs, said J. LeRoy Yorgason, the association’s executive director.

“Many times, some of the things that go on in government have no interest to John Q. Public,” Yorgason said. “As soon as it starts affecting them, they say, ‘Hey, you in the news media should have told me about this.’ “