SALEM — The Oregon Legislature passed four public records laws — pushed by the governor and attorney general — in a recently wrapped session.
Gov. Kate Brown said the laws are probably the “most significant reforms” to the state’s public records laws in decades.
The bills amend Oregon’s 1973 public records law, which established a presumption of openness. Citizens have the right to obtain government documents unless there’s a specific legal exemption that prohibits them from doing so.
The need for improving the records law during the session grew from frustration about getting documents from the administration of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who resigned in February 2015.
“The strength of our government institutions depend on the public trust, and public trust can be quickly eroded when people don’t feel they have access to the work their government is doing or when they can’t get answers to reasonable questions,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told lawmakers during the session.
The bills establish three new committees, a public records advocate and a chief data officer. Separately, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson made state archivist Mary Beth Herkert the public records advocate by administrative fiat.
Brown’s bill provides for the appointment of a public records advocate, an attorney who will mediate in public records disputes, train state agencies and district attorneys on public records laws and serve as chairperson of the Public Records Advisory Council.
A bill from Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, creates a 15-member Sunshine Committee to systematically review the 550-plus exemptions to public records law over the next nine years and to recommend which can be abolished, modified or left alone.
A bill from Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, appoints a state chief data officer to maintain a web portal of government data to make it readily accessible to the public.
Rosenblum’s bill requires the Department of Justice to create an online catalog of the exemptions, and it also sets a timeline and benchmarks for public agency response to a record request.
Previous law was vague, saying only that the agencies had to respond in a reasonable time.