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The most extensive rewrite of Oregon's public records law in decades is in the works, instigated by Attorney General John Kroger.
Kroger has proposed legislation that would force public agencies to respond to requests for documents more quickly and would place new limits on how much agencies could charge for releasing the records. He also proposes eliminating more than 100 exemptions.
"We are setting real deadlines that government has to comply with for public records requests," Kroger told The Oregonian on Wednesday. He said he decided the state's nearly 40-year-old law needed to be reformed after hearing about long delays and daunting charges for records. "We are making sure government is responding rapidly."
Kroger's "transparency initiative" would require public bodies to acknowledge receipt of a request within two business days. The agency would have 10 working days to meet the request or claim an exemption.
As for fees, Kroger proposes that public agencies may charge no more than three times the state minimum wage, or actual cost of staff time, whichever is less. Agencies could charge the full cost of attorney fees, however.
The proposals, which now go to the Legislature, stem from growing concerns among news organizations, watchdog groups and others that obtaining documents and other material from Oregon public agencies was becoming increasingly difficult and expensive.
"I totally commend the attorney general for moving forward with establishing some clear guidelines, making sure public records are more available to citizens of Oregon," said Jon Bartholomew, a lobbyist for the consumer advocate group OSPIRG.
Bartholomew noted that his group has made a number of requests for public documents recently that were met with delays of up to two months and higher-than-expected charges to obtain the information. Those kinds of barriers are often too difficult for members of the general public to overcome, he said.
OSPIRG is pushing for more agencies to post their information online, where it is free and accessible to anyone with a computer and internet access.
Efforts to loosen the state's open records laws have had limited success in recent years. Instead, lawmakers have tended to vote the other way, adding new ways to prevent records from being released, often out of privacy concerns.
Kroger said the number of exemptions in Oregon's public records law has jumped from 55 to more than 400 since the law was first passed.
"That represents an erosion of government transparency," he said.
His proposed changes come after he ordered a review of the state's sunshine laws and held a series of public hearings.
"Some of these changes represent a significant change in how the government does business," Kroger said.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he recently met with Kroger to get a "30,000-foot briefing" about the proposals. Prozanski said he was not personally aware of problems with Oregon's open records law but says his committee will definitely hold hearings.
"Until we have hearings and they bring issues forward, I won't know what, if anything, we need to do," Prozanski said.
Among the exemptions proposed for elimination:
- Reports of waste, fraud and abuse made to the secretary of state, once the investigation is completed.
- Records of the governor's disability panel, which convenes when there are serious questions about the governor's fitness for duty.
- Personnel disciplinary materials for non-union management employees.
- Investment-related records of the state treasurer and the Oregon Investment Council if they contain information about any benefit received by a state employee or state agency.
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