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Open records review

John Kroger, Oregon’s attorney general, is not one to let things be simple because they seem to be going fairly well. Thus his office has spent considerable time this year in preparing to overhaul the state’s open records law as a part of his pledge to make government open and transparent.

The open records law is designed to let Oregonians, from a news reporter to the neighbor next door, ask for and receive copies of many of the records government agencies keep. Need minutes from a city council meeting last year? Ask, and Oregon cities must cough them up. The same is true for such things as e-mails between public officials and for a slew of other things.

Still, the law is not without its problems, and Kroger knows that. He’s currently touring the state, holding public meetings on the open records law and on the one that governs open meetings. While he may suggest changes to both, it’s the open records law that is likely to get the bulk of his attention, says his spokesman, Tony Green.

In fact, Green said Kroger is focusing on three problem areas in the law. One is that it establishes no deadlines by which records must be denied or handed over. That can be a real problem if timely release of such information is critical, as you might expect. Green expects some sort of deadline or deadlines will be included among any changes Kroger proposes.

Second, Kroger is expected to propose more uniform fees that can be charged by government agencies for retrieving and copying public records. There is no uniform fee schedule now, and agencies from the local rural fire protection district to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission are pretty much free to charge what the traffic will bear, sometimes close to $100 per hour. Such high charges are a clear deterrent to anyone demanding records that every Oregonian is entitled to see.

Finally, the some 450 exemptions currently written into the law will be given a going over, Green said. Here, he notes, it’s not so much a matter of removing exemptions — though we hope some of that will be suggested — as organizing and simplifying them. As an example, Green cites a variety of exemptions covering employment records that are scattered and disorganized.

Oregon’s open records law was enacted in 1973, and it hasn’t had a thorough review in the intervening 37 years. Meanwhile, the Internet, e-mail and other electronic wonders have changed records and record-keeping almost beyond recognition. That alone justifies Kroger’s mission, though a more user-friendly open records law is surely worth the effort as well.

— Wescom News Service (The Bend Bulletin)

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