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Note: Les Zaitz of the Oregonian represents journalists and the Oregon Territory Chapter of SPJ on the Oregon Public Records Task Force. Here is a report on last week's task force meeting.
TO: SPJ – Oregon Territory
FROM: Les Zaitz
Re: OREGON PUBLIC RECORDS TASK FORCE
The task force is meeting monthly with three subcommittees meeting as needed. The objective is to produce legislation to reform the Oregon Public Records Law in the 2017 session. The task force was appointed and is led by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
Minutes and task force materials are all available on the state Justice Department website.
The most recent meeting (April 25, 2016) focused on the issue of deadlines for public agencies to respond to records requests. The discussion shows for me the challenge that remains in reforming the law – special interest groups will jealously guard their interests, making legislative reform uncertain.
Oregon journalists need to participate in the debate over deadlines.
Under current law, agencies face no deadline. Rather, they “shall respond as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay” and “furnish proper and reasonable opportunities” for access.
The task force focused on draft legislation from the 2016 short session in HB4130. That legislation required agencies to respond within 5 days, providing the records or otherwise explaining the records aren’t available. Within 30 days, the agency would have to provide the records, cite exemptions, or declare the agency is still gathering the records and provide an estimated date for response.
The task force discussion moved towards modifying this proposal to require an acknowledgement of a request within 5 days, more substantive action within 10 days, and a more fulsome response within 30 days.
Representatives of the cities, counties and school boards are reluctant to agree to firm deadlines. And they are opposed to creating in statute any more opening for a requester to seek a district attorney’s order to compel disclosure when a deadline isn’t met. During the discussion, these groups on one hand said their members largely provide records without delay but then said local governments might be forced to make records processing a priority over other government functions, such as issuing a building permit. They also are concerned how agencies were to handle large, complex requests to comply with deadlines. They further argued that imposing deadlines would create a rush to district attorneys, burdening those offices and their members with addressing public records petitions. They represented the district attorneys aren’t likely to support any step that creates more work for their offices.
On behalf of SPJ and Oregon journalists, I noted that the attorney general’s manual already provides as a general guide that public agencies should be able to respond to most requests within 10 days. I noted this has been the standard for some time, and that this has not produced any long line at the office of district attorneys with people filing public records petitions. I urged that we build clarity into the law for public employees, journalists and citizens with deadlines. I recommended language could be crafted to allow leeway for complex, large or disruptive requests. I also urged that any deadlines should include some consequence so public employees are on clear notice that willfully failing to obey the law will draw some action.
Some of the task force suggested that a new public records ombudsman ought to be empowered to handle disputes over timely processing.
After the meeting ended, I approached those representing local governments, asking what solution they saw for what journalists see as a real problem. Their responses continued to focus on the burden requests impose on their members and they don’t want to do anything that makes that worse.
RECOMMENDATION: SPJ members need to provide documented instances where agencies have delayed providing records. The examples need to clearly illustrate that agencies will take advantage of the vague language of existing law to procrastinate. Examples should not include unusual or complex requests where other factors cloud the reason for the delay. I welcome members to send me examples at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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