Are there too many exemptions in public records law?

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Is Oregon transparent enough in its disclosure of public records?

According to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, the answer is no.

Oregon first enacted a law pertaining to the disclosure of public records in 1973. Now, thanks to a push by Rosenblum, a special task force will look into whether the public records law has too many exemptions and loopholes that make it easy for government entities not to release information in a timely manner.

“We’re really glad Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is convening this group and driving everything forward,” David Rosenfeld with the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group said.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum makes remarks during a debate in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

OSPIRG, a consumer group, relies on access to government records to act in the public interest. But they’re not alone: numerous groups, activists and investigative journalists across the state utilize public records to bring serious issues out into the open.

At KOIN 6 News, public records requests helped Dan Tilkin expose overspending on the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services building. But not before the city charged over $120 for someone to stand by while he sifted through records.

The city also asked for another $669 for an entirely different story and request from the water bureau.

And remember when KOIN 6 News exposed issues with the elephant display at the Oregon Zoo? Metro wanted $17,000 to release the information.

“We just don’t agree fundamentally with that,” Rosenfeld said. “We think that if you’re a public servant it is of the utmost importance that you have systems in place to be able to easily give any piece of information to a member of the public about the inner workings of government.”

Rosenfeld is a member of the task force being assembled by the attorney general, who will take recommendations for improving transparency and access to the legislature.

She’s backed by Governor Kate Brown who signed Senate Bill 9 this summer, authorizing the secretary of state to audit state agencies for shortcomings in public records policies.

“With both the audit and the work that we’re doing around the task force, I think it will substantially improve access and transparency to state government records,” Governor Brown said. “I think that’s critically important.”

Rosenfeld says he wants to see the list of public records exemptions cut down from hundreds, to maybe 3 or 4. He also wants to redefine what the phrase “trade secrets” means and to improve access to public records tied to private businesses that work with the government.

“The ability of any member of the public to get the business of the government in a timely manner is of the utmost importance,” he said. “Otherwise, democracy doesn’t work.”

The first task force meeting is set for Thursday. KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this story.

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