The Oregon Legislature is looking at two bills that would curtail access to public records.
Both measures have advanced through the legislative process without opposition at any stage. Lawmakers say they’re protecting people’s privacy, but government transparency advocates worry about adding even more exemptions to Oregon’s public records law.
The state Senate voted Monday to block access to personal information from electronic fare cards that Portland’s transit agency plans to adopt. The measure is headed to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s desk for a signature or veto.
Also on Monday, a Senate committee advanced a bill prohibiting disclosure of agreements related to the conservation of sage grouse, a threatened bird. That measure is headed for a vote in the full Senate, likely later this week.
The two new exemptions would join more than 400 that already exist in Oregon’s public records law, up from just 55 when the law was first adopted in 1973 in the midst of the Watergate scandal.
Access to information is critical for the public to know what public officials are up to, what decisions are being made and whether government is operating efficiently, said Tim Gleason, former dean of the University of Oregon journalism school who is now special assistant to the provost.
Gleason said he wasn’t familiar enough with the bills considered Monday to comment on them specifically. But he said lawmakers have steadily added exemptions to the public records law without any analysis about “the impact of this bill-by-bill erosion of public access.”
“In isolation, each one of these seems like a good idea,” Gleason said. “It’s only when you look at the cumulative effect that you begin to see the serious problem.”
TriMet, the mass-transit area in metro Portland, plans to roll out an electronic system for collecting fares. Individual accounts will have personally identifiable information about TriMet users as well as their travel patterns. HB 4086 would prohibit disclosure of that information.
“Citizens have an important interest in keeping their personal travel patterns and travel history private and not available for public consumption,” Timothy Snider, a Portland attorney who represents TriMet, wrote in testimony submitted to the House Judiciary Committee.
The sage grouse bill, HB 4093, is aimed at increasing participation among ranchers in efforts to prevent the listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species, said Rep. Cliff Bentz, the Ontario Republican who sponsored it. Listing under the Endangered Species Act would trigger strict conservation measures that would be detrimental to the Eastern Oregon economy, he said.
In an effort to avoid it, local officials hope landowners will voluntarily submit plans to mitigate dangers for the birds. But Ranchers are concerned that anyone, including animal rights groups or competitors, could get access to their personal and business information, said Tom Sharp, a Harney County rancher who is leading the effort to secure voluntary participation in the conservation plan.
“It’s important to the state of Oregon that we try to avoid an ESA listing of the sage grouse,” Sharp said.
The existing privacy exemption in Oregon’s public records law prohibits release of “information of a personal nature…if public disclosure would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy.”