One of the interesting sidelights in this year’s legislative session will be the fate of a proposal to create a public records ombudsman. The idea is that the ombudsman’s office would help mediate disputes between state agencies and members of the public requesting public records.
Now, your first question might well be this: Why would such an office be necessary? Don’t public records belong to, well, members of the public? Shouldn’t state agencies consistently be bending over backward to help citizens access those records?
To be fair, there are agencies where that occurs on a regular basis. But the overall picture is not as bright as it should be — and the number of instances in which a government bureaucracy has blocked legitimate requests for records or has charged unrealistic fees is on the rise, and has been for years.
The idea for the ombudsman is the work of a public task force that has been laboring for more than a year on overhauling the state’s records laws. It’s been challenging work; the task force had hoped, for example, to examine the 500 or so exemptions to the public records law that have cropped up in the decades since 1973, when Oregon enacted a law that was at the time considered among the best in the nation.
That’s no longer the case, a realization that helped pave the way for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to create the task force in the first place. But it became clear to task force members that the work of cataloging and examining the exemptions will take some time.
So, in the meantime, the task force has recommended some smaller steps, including the idea of creating the ombudsman. A bill pending before the 2017 Legislature, Senate Bill 106, does just that, creating a position that will be called the “public records advocate.”
Let’s be clear: This isn’t the huge breakthrough in access to public records that Oregon citizens deserve. For starters, the advocate position would not have the authority to compel release of records, but it potentially would have the ability to work with citizens to mediate solutions to records disputes.
But it is a step forward, unless the position is created in such a way to undercut its legitimacy from the start. That’s part of the reason why former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins recommended setting up the advocate’s position as an independent office in state government. But the state’s budget shortfall makes that a long shot, and Atkins understands that.
After initially proposing that the office be housed in the office of the secretary of state, Gov. Kate Brown recently suggested that the office be placed in the Department of Administrative Services. There’s a critical problem with that: The director of that department reports to the governor.
Why would Brown, a Democrat, change her tune about where the advocate should be located? The November elections may offer a clue: Voters chose Republican Dennis Richardson as the state’s new secretary of state.
But Brown, who has talked about the need to increase public confidence in state government, needs to shrug off whatever political concerns she might have and stick with the original plan. There is a promising sign on that front: A spokesman for the governor recently said that she’s less concerned with where the position might be housed and more focused on making sure it’s effective.
Let’s be blunt: It’s more effective if the governor doesn’t have direct authority over the position. In a legislative session that increasingly seems defined by hard partisan lines, it will be interesting to watch this issue play out.