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Making Public Records Public

OPB | Dec. 7, 2009 9 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 9:08 p.m.

If Attorney General John Kroger has his way, Oregonians should soon know more about their ability to access state records and take part in public meetings. On Wednesday he announced that the DOJ has put the state’s Public Records and Meetings Manual online. He also created an introductory Citizen’s Guide to the somewhat complex world of public records requests, as well as an online request form (pdf) for people seeking DOJ documents.

The other big part of Wednesday’s announcement was the news of the creation of a new position: the Government Transparency Counsel, whose mission is to “improve the enforcement of Oregon’s open government laws”:

The position will coordinate all public records requests to the Department of Justice. It will also coordinate DOJ’s legal services to state agencies, boards and commissions on issues related to the Public Records Law. The new position will serve as a resource to Oregon’s 36 district attorneys who handle appeals from local government denials of public records requests, and it will advise the Attorney General with respect to appeals from state agency denials of public records requests. The goal is to ensure that Oregon’s Public Records Law is consistently and correctly applied, as the law requires.

At the same time, the Attorney General’s office recently moved to limit the information that can be released about businesses accused of consumer fraud.

All of this falls on the heels of a fair amount of public records news. Most directly, there was a very public disagreement about whether or not someone could post the DOJ’s copyrighted manual online. (The issue seems moot now that the state has posted the manual itself, but you can read the whole back and forth on U of O professor Bill Harbaugh’s blog.) And then there’s the Portland start-up Nozzl Media, which is based on the idea that “vast repositories of public records could be scoured by software robots and made easily available online to citizens.”

What stories based on public records requests — and the information they uncovered — have stuck with you? (For a few examples, here’s The Oregonian on who plays the lottery, Willamette Week on Portland’s heaviest water users, and The New York Times on water polluters across the country (including in Oregon)).

If you’re not a reporter, or an enterprising citizen muckracker, will a more streamlined public records process encourage you to make a request? What would you look for?

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