What's a Public Record and What's Not

Oregon has a well-earned reputation for keeping many records public. But, even as a second- or third-tier issue in this legislative session, public records issues are causing some controversy.

Here are some examples:

 

  • Senate Bill 41:  Attorney General John Kroger has used this bill to recommend a wholesale change in Oregon's public records laws, which are spread throughout statute books. He wants to centralize records laws under the overall public records law, ORS 192.500 and, in the process, get rid of about 100 current exemptions. He also wants to limit what state and local governments can charge for researching record and making copies of them. Therein lies the controversy.
  • Senate Bill 346:  Senate Judiciary Committee members, over objections from the broadcast and newspaper industries, are toying with barring media access to tapes of the 911 Emergency Call System. The chief advocate for the bill, City of Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz, contends that voices on 911 tapes belong to the caller and should not be subject to media review. Broadcast and newspaper managers, on the other hand, are opposing government intervention in the news business and insist they are able to make decisions on when to air 911 tapes, making the balancing decisions required between the public's right to know and personal privacy.
  • House Bill 2043:  This bill, advocated by the Department of Human Services, proposes to make records maintained by state agency ombudspersons exempt from disclosure. Newspaper and broadcast representatives succeeded in parsing the ombudsperson records by making private those where disclosure could result in harm to those making complaints about government services. That wasn't enough as the bill remains hung up over questions relating to privileged communications for attorneys.

Broadcast and newspaper representatives for their part want to err on the side of keeping records public unless specific exemptions can be justified.  Often, the ACLU joins the Oregon Broadcasters Association and the Oregon Newspaper Publishers' Association in supporting public record disclosure.  For his part, Kroger has generated headlines by coming down on the side of government transparency.

Advocates of private records don't often argue against transparency. They usually justify privacy on other, issue-specific grounds.

It is not clear how these and other public records issues will be sifted and sorted out this session. The Senate and House Judiciary committees will be the focus of much of the action.
 

(In the spirit of full disclosure, CFM represents Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, which is heavily involved in the public records debates.)