Guest opinion submitted by Bill Harbaugh
professor of economics at the University of Oregon.
Oregon has horrible public records laws. They can be fixed overnight.
In his inaugural speech President Barack Obama said that he would make sure our federal government would “do our business in the light of day.” He meant it — his first official act was an executive order strengthening the federal FOIA act. Oregon needs to do the same thing. Our public records law gives too much discretion to state agencies and too little power to citizens who want to know what those agencies are doing. We need change. We can get it quickly. Here’s how.
In theory, Oregon’s public records law makes it simple for people to get documents that are in the possession of a state or local agency. An email to the agency head saying “this is a public records request for” followed by a description of the document is all it should take. The agency is required to make a pro-forma response “as soon as practicable” and make “proper and reasonable” efforts to get you the documents promptly.
In practice things don’t work this way. Oregon law doesn’t tell agencies how long they have to respond and some use this loophole with glee. The only recourse — short of court — is to petition Oregon’s Attorney General and ask him to order the agency to comply with the law. But with no firm deadline, the interpretation of “proper and reasonable” is all up to the AG. Former AG Hardy Meyers and his deputy Pete Shepherd routinely let state agencies take at least a month — sometimes even two — to produce even a single page document.
John Kroger, Oregon’s new Attorney General, can change this overnight by using a more proper and reasonable definition of “reasonable and proper.” The obvious choice would be the same 5-day standard that most other states use. In a pinch agencies could take longer, but only if they could justify it to the AG. Oregon would move, well, not to the front, but at least to the middle of the pack with respect to public records access.
I’ve posted more about this, including some practical information on how to get Oregon public records, at http://openuporegon.com.
— Bill Harbaugh is a professor of economics at the University of Oregon. He has submitted this article to other blogs to help spread the word. You can help by emailing it to your friends.