NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · OREGON · Freedom of Information · June 29, 2007
State extends access to public records
June 29, 2007 · Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed two bills last week to increase public access to government records.
One bill expedites the process through which government bodies must respond to requests for public records.
The other dictates that all records created or collected by an attorney or an attorney’s agent are not exempt from disclosure, except to the extent that they include legal advice. However, it also allows the governmental agency to release a condensed version of the significant facts of such documents rather than release them in their entirety.
The latter bill is in response to a 2006 Oregon Court of Appeals decision involving a citizen’s request for public records relating to an internal financial investigation.
In 2002, the Klamath County School District denied a public records request by asserting attorney-client privilege, since it had hired an attorney to conduct the investigation. The court held for the school district, finding that the records were confidential communications between attorney and client that were not subject to disclosure. The state Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Critics of the decision argued it gave public officials an opportunity to keep virtually anything confidential, so long as it somehow involved an attorney.
“The Klamath Falls case was basically a permission slip for public bodies all over the state, whenever they ran into a problem, to simply hire a lawyer and shut down all the information,” said Judson Randall, secretary of Open Oregon, a state freedom of information coalition. “It was an invitation to conduct secret investigations.”
Under the new bill, government bodies would not be able to circumvent open records laws merely by involving an attorney in the process. The only documents that can be withheld under attorney-client privilege are those that include legal advice, opinion or counsel from the attorney.
However, the bill provides some protection to government agencies unwilling to disclose complete records, since they may choose to release a condensed version of factual findings in lieu of the complete documents.
Randall said the bill was a step in the right direction.
“This law is a minor breakthrough, but the problem isn’t completely solved,” Randall said.
(S.B. 671 and S.B. 554) — JB