The Yin and Yang of the Public Records Debate

At different ends of Capitol hallways last week, a traditional debate was playing out on the issue of public records, pro and con.

On one side stood Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, who has made much of his attempt to bring order out of chaos on Oregon's public records laws, which are spread throughout Oregon statutes. In the process, his efforts would get rid of about 100 exemptions that make records private (Senate Bill 41).

On the other side, gun rights advocates won passage in the House of House Bill 2787 to bar public access to records of concealed handgun license holders.

Bills also are pending to make records held by state agency ombudspersons confidential (House Bill 2043) and bar media access to 911 tapes (Senate Bill 346).

Bringing order out of this chaos is a tall order.
   
However, that is how Kroger characterizes his motivation. Here is what he told the Senate General Government Committee last week:

"Senate Bill 41 proposes a number of important changes to Oregon's public records law. The changes are the product of an eighteen-month process of meeting with Oregonians and representatives of Oregon government, and reviewing public records laws around the country. Senate Bill 41 remedies a number of shortcomings in a manner consistent with other states."

Kroger is entering an old and often complicated debate.
   
News media representatives from print and broadcast want records to be public unless editors and publishers expressly make the judgment that certain records can be kept confidential – records such as names and home addresses of law enforcement or prison officials, which, if released, could cause harm to the persons. Or, in the case of pending real estate transactions on the part of state government, reporters and editors often don't mind keeping thins confidential to avoid property price speculation. 

But reporters and editors want the ability to make the balancing between the public's right to know on one hand and personal privacy on the other.

Overall, Kroger is right – exemptions have sprung up over time and are scattered through state law, making administration difficult. Of course, he also argues for transparency.

As with many issues in Salem, the devil is in the details of gaining that transparency.