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We need a more effective public records law

We entered last week with news Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum had submitted revisions to Oregon Public Records Law for consideration during the 2017 legislative session. The revisions are based on recommendations from a task force made up of members of the media and state and local governments and others, and are presumed to give priority to the public’s right to know.

The revised law is expected to clarify deadlines for when agencies need to respond to public records requests. But more importantly, from our perspective, we want new legislation to clarify the many exemptions state and local officials can cite to keep documents secret, as well as a reckoning on the attorney-client privilege exemption popularized in 2006’s Klamath County School District vs. Teamy case. The Teamy case set the standard for documents and reports completed at the direction of an attorney, one hired by a public agency, to be locked away from public review.

At its heart, Oregon’s records law is a disclosure law — but through voluminous exemptions that have been tacked onto it, it is now a law more suited for aiding government secrecy. Those who work in government know this. Even when agencies have granted release, they often require huge payments to cover legal review of the documents beforehand. And when release of the document is flatly denied, the only recourse for media or the general public is to petition the state’s Attorney General’s Office or, in the case of non-state issues, the District Attorney’s Office.

It’s a time-consuming process that is flawed due to public agencies’ now-common practice of burying all documents in the name of attorney-client privilege. While other exemptions can be dismissed if a public interest test for release of the documents is met, through the catch-all practice of attorney-client privilege, which exists outside of the records law, attorneys are able to pad their pockets, public officials operate with impunity, and the taxpaying public remains obliviously in the dark.

Release of public documents under Oregon’s records law is not the only way media outlets receive such files, as numerous sterling examples of watchdog journalism exemplify; but it is an important tool for shedding light on government operations. We welcome the task force and its recommendations, and have our fingers crossed the entire process genuinely aids the public’s right to know and is not for naught.

We believe in watchdog journalism at the Spotlight. It’s not easy. Not only is it an uncertain exercise that takes a lot of work, especially for a small staff like ours, but just like most other government-run agencies, government officials in Columbia County really don’t want the public to take notice of, or acknowledge, any blemishes in their record. There is always pushback.

We need a more effective public records law to aid our mission of delivering quality, meaningful information to our readership. And that, more than anything else, is our purpose.