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Brown puts public records reform on lawmakers' front burner

Governor's action comes after audit highlights agency flaws, flops


Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday promised to take immediate action to improve access to government records after a state audit showed slow and inconsistent responses to records requests may be jeopardizing public trust.

The governor said she plans to introduce legislation in the 2016 session that would follow the audit’s recommendation to create a public records ombudsman position. The job role would involve helping the public access requested documents and assisting agencies with complying with public records law.

Brown also announced that she would issue an executive order calling for more consistency between agencies in fees charged and timelines for fulfilling records requests. The audit report, released Tuesday, found that fees and timelines varied widely between nine agencies that were audited.

She plans to establish a task force to look at the more than 400 exemptions to public records law and make recommendations for improvements in 2017.

Brown said she inherited a backlog of unfulfilled public records requests when she took office from Gov. John Kitzhaber, who resigned in February amid an influence-peddling scandal involving First Lady Cylvia Hayes.

“It was clear transparency wasn’t a priority in the prior administration,” said Brown, who rose to the state’s highest office from her position as secretary of state.

Since February, Brown’s office has fulfilled more than 100 public records requests, containing 350,000 pages and involving more than 3,000 hours of staff time, she said.

The audit report, released Tuesday, found that agencies furnished records relatively quickly — in two weeks or less — for routine requests. About 90 percent of requests fit the definition of routine - commonly requested information that is easy to find, according to the audit.

More complicated requests could take more than 265 days, result in high and inconsistent fees and lead to “the perception that agencies are using these tactics to block the release of public information,” auditors wrote.

The audit found that agencies struggle with fulfilling requests for social media posts, text and instant messages or public records from a personal email account and some had no systematic way for storing electronic records.

Brown requested the audit in legislation she proposed during the 2015 legislative session. Senate Bill 9 was a response to delays in the release of public records that shed light on whether Hayes used her public position to secure private consulting contracts.

The legislation required the secretary of state’s office to audit agencies’ handling of public records requests.


By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
503-385-4899
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