Not-so-public records

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the East Coast, Oregon legislators have chipped away at the state’s public records law by approving more than 30 bills putting records out of the public’s reach or limiting access to those records.

However, most of the record-closings or restrictions passed since 2001 stem more from personal privacy concerns and worries about such issues as identity theft than from fears of terrorism.

Whatever the motivation, open records advocates say the exemptions are undermining Oregon’s 1973 public records law that was designed to build people’s confidence in government by allowing unfettered public access to government documents.

“We end up with all of these exemptions that, in isolation, have some merit,” said Tim Gleason, dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism. “But when you step back and look at the broader picture, the public’s right to know is being eroded by a thousand cuts.”

Some of the bills limit access to billing information about water company customers, keep confidential information about donors to universities, and keep secret the identities of people involved in animal research at Oregon Health and Science University.

Other bills restrict access to student records, personal information about people in court records, property deeds and DMV records and trade secrets in business and industry.

One of the most contentious bills was debated in the Legislature’s 2003 session, when local governments and utilities pushed for a bill to close records pertaining to plans for protecting utility facilities and other key installations from potential sabotage.

Gas company officials and others argued that with the United States under a continuing threat of terrorist attack, it doesn’t benefit the public to have those security plans as part of the public record.

In the end, the 2003 legislation was narrowed following news media protests that it would have given government bodies and utilities too much authority to decide what could be kept secret.

Sept. 11 was the prime motivating factor behind the 2003 utility security plan bill along with several other measures closing records.

But Kevin Neely of the Oregon attorney general’s office estimates that three-fourths of the record-closing exemptions or restrictions approved by Oregon lawmakers in the 2003 and 2005 sessions are the result of personal privacy concerns.

"My guess is that the farther you get away from the East Coast, the less the impact Sept. 11 has had on state sunshine laws," Neely said.

Neely also said that even with the exemptions that have been approved over the years, Oregonians still are well-served by the 1973 law because it’s based on the premise that government records should be open unless someone can make a good case to close the record.

“In many other states, the burden is on the citizen to prove that the record should be released,” he said.

Despite the recent trend of Oregon lawmakers granting records law exemptions to private interests, government agencies and others, there have been some noteworthy moves to open records to the public.

In the Legislature’s 2005 session, lawmakers approved a bill sought by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association to open state child abuse records in cases where a child is killed or seriously hurt.

“By passing this bill, we are now able to see if public agencies were doing the right thing for these children,” said J. LeRoy Yorgason, the association’s executive director.

Legislators also approved laws in 2005 to open disciplinary records of teachers convicted of sexual abuse and to prevent public agencies from entering secret legal settlements.

Both those bills were pushed by a state senator who, in the same year, also won approval of a bill to make the law clear that the identity of someone who reports a case of suspected child abuse is to be kept confidential in most instances.

Sen. Vicki Walker said there has to be a “careful balancing act” between protecting individuals’ privacy and the public’s access to government records.

“Our government should be as open as possible to the public,” the Eugene Democrat said. “We shouldn’t close off public records unless there’s a darned good reason for it.”