Editorial: Public records law tweak will not be enough

The legislation proposed by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to change Oregon’s public records law could be an improvement, but it does not go far enough.

It attempts to fix one problem in the existing law: the absence of deadlines.

Rosenblum’s proposal would establish a five-day deadline for a public body to acknowledge receipt of a records request. It would also establish a 10-day deadline for a public body to complete the request or explain why it has not.

The problem will not be with that language. The problem will be with how it is interpreted.

Remember what the law says now. A public body “receiving the request shall respond as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay.” That’s not what has happened.

Is the request for something that will make the public body look like it’s marvelous? Expect a news release and swift information. Some public bodies also do their best to provide routine records requests quickly and at no cost.

But if the request has to do with a controversial issue or could make the agency look bad, it’s a different story. Expect to wait. Expect the request to be turned over to an attorney for review. Expect that the cost of the documents to be prohibitively high or for the request to be denied outright. And in that case, how is a member of the public supposed to have the money to hire the lawyers to fight it?

What happened about a year ago in Oregon set a new standard for denying a records request. A member of the public requested from the state Department of Human Services an easily usable database containing the names and addresses of all home health care providers in Oregon. DHS did not deny the information was a matter of public record. But DHS delayed the request for months until, guess what? Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a provision exempting some of the information from disclosure.

No matter how the law is tweaked, public bodies should resolve requests in favor of the public’s right to know.

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