April 23, 2001 11:00 pm

Stop messing

with public access

Oregon once was known as the state that didnt have to hide things from the public. The Oregon Public Records and Meetings Law has been the basis for guaranteeing public and therefore press access to records and meetings. But the law is becoming, as state Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said, Swiss cheese. With every legislative session more and more exemptions to the law are granted to the special interests that have the ear of legislators. To date more than 300 exemptions to the law have been approved by the Legislature.

The 2001 session is no different from the last few, and could conceivably boost the number of exemptions even higher. The newspaper industry itself has been remiss by not reminding legislators

The only bright spot concerning public records was proposed by our own representative, Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin. The bill, HB 3839, would require public bodies to provide public records within 24 hours of a request.

But proposals to enhance public access to records are few and far between. Most of the bills in the Legislature pertain to limiting public access.

Among this years crop are:

HB 2436, which would limit access to 911 tapes.

HB 2038, which would allow state agencies to withhold some information that arrives via the Internet.

SB 207, which would exempt from public disclosure any records, reports, or other information relating to private property received by the state Agriculture Department or any soil and water conservation district during the preparation of a voluntary individual water quality management plan.

SB 377, which would remove any personally identifying information about liquor store operators or applicants from the public record.

SB 363, which would exempt from disclosure the names and addresses of people making complaints against day care centers.

SB 513, which would exempt concealed handgun permits or applications for permits from public disclosure.

HB 2385, the agricultural research bill, which originally would have had major implications for journalists who unknowingly used information that was obtained illegally. The final version bears watching.

Oregons Public Records and Meetings Law, which was intended to guarantee that the public has access to the actions of government, faces new limits every legislative session. The sad fact is the public will go along with the changes, believing they make sense, until they no longer have the access they deserve.

As a classic song said, Sometimes you just dont know what you youve got til its gone. But by then its too late.