(TNS) -- Transparency advocates are cheering what some of them say is the biggest collective improvement in Oregon's public records law since it was created more than 40 years ago.
It took more than two years after the resignation of former Gov. John Kitzhaber amid an influence-peddling scandal and questions left unanswered by a backlog of unfulfilled records requests from his final months in office.
Lawmakers' approval of a cluster of records-related proposals should fix some of the most significant weaknesses in Oregon's system of making government records available for public review, proponents say.
The three main bills:
As it turns out, however, the public records advocate won't make it any easier for the public to obtain the type of records that were at issue in the final months of the Kitzhaber administration. That's because the advocate will work to resolve disputes that involve state agencies and cities – not elected officials, including the governor. Handling disputes that involve other local governments, including counties and school districts, is also outside the advocate's authority.
A fourth bill calls for a chief data officer, who will work to make the state's databases more accessible to the public.
Advocates for the bills included some of the journalists who covered the influence peddling scandal around Kitzhaber and his partner Cylvia Hayes in the fall of 2014. They were joined by environmentalists and other transparency activists.
Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air in Portland, said the sunshine committee will give members of the public a key role making sure they can get important government information.
"We found this to be really important in the past year, requests that we've been making for public documents," Peveto said.
Several people who pushed for the changes described them as the most significant public records improvements since the state adopted its original public records law in 1973. The bills setting deadlines for governments to respond to requests and creating the panel to review exemptions are based on ideas from a task force organized by state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in fall 2015.
"This is the first time there has been significant public records reform since the inception of the law," Rosenblum said. "So this is a big deal."
Journalists were among the strongest advocates for changes that would make it faster, quicker and cheaper to obtain public records. Shasta Kearns Moore, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' Oregon Sunshine Committee, also described the changes as a milestone.
"We are thrilled that the legislature passed significant public records reforms this session. It has been a long time coming," Moore wrote in an email. "I think this sends a clear message that Oregonians expect the information they have paid to create and store to -- as much as possible -- be available for everyone's use."
City and county government officials had worried public records request deadlines could prove overwhelming if governments were forced to fulfill complex and voluminous requests in short order. In interviews this week, local government lobbyists said the key to achieving changes this time was the consensus-driven approach started by Rosenblum.
"We all collectively worked really hard on those bills to get 'em done right, and I think we're pretty darn pleased," said Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties.
Lawmakers passed the plan to set public records deadlines last month, and Gov.Kate Brown signed it into law June 22. Senate Bill 481 sets a 15-day time limit for agencies to release records in most cases, starting in 2018. Rosenblum said although most agencies handle records requests quickly, "we've also heard the horror stories now. This will address those and hopefully really bring down the length of time it should take to respond."
The Legislature passed the three other bills before going home last week.
Rep. John Huffman, a Republican from the Dalles, was on Rosenblum's task force. He was also the chief sponsor of the proposal to create the committee to review exemptions, House Bill 2101.
Huffman said the final bill was dialed back from an initial proposal to automatically sunset certain public records exemptions. Still, he said, "we really moved the ball down the field."
The panel will review by 2026 most of the more than 500 exemptions to the state's public records law, which lays out which information governments are either forbidden from releasing or can choose to keep secret. Several categories of exemptions are specifically off-limits from reconsideration, including ones for trade secrets and home care workers' email addresses and other personal information.
Starting in 2018, the committee will issue recommendations every two years on which public records exemptions should be amended or repealed. A legislative subcommittee will decide whether to move ahead with those recommendations.
The bill also requires the Legislature to attach an "open government" statement to every bill that passes out of committee that would affect the disclosure of public records. Those statements will assess the potential impact on the public's interest in being able to access information.
Brown's plan to create a public records advocate, who will mediate disputes between the public and government agencies over which records must be released or kept confidential, generated some controversy over the advocate's independence. The governor's initial proposal was to house the advocate at the Department of Administrative Services, which is controlled by the governor and plays a key role in implementing the governor's agenda.
Then in May, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson announced he'd arrange for State Archivist Mary Beth Herkert to take on the public records advocate duties. Richardson noted Herkert already plays a role in helping governments to understand the public records law and said his idea would save money.
The final plan passed by the Legislature calls for the records advocate selected by the governor and an advisory panel to work at the State Archivist's office, under the Secretary of State. Herkert said she is still working out details of how the function will be handled.
In summing up the legislative session last week, Brown described the public records bills as among the most important accomplishments.
"I think it's fair to say that these three bills are a significant reform to Oregon's public records laws, and probably the most significant reforms we've seen in multiple decades," Brown said.
©2017 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.