Oregon keeps more public records secret in the name of privacy


PRIVACY VS TRANSPARENCY: Oregon lawmakers keep records secret in the name of privacy.

By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog

Oregon’s public records law already includes a long list of exemptions, yet the state’s Legislature wants to add more.

Both bills adding the exemptions await Gov. John Kitzhaber’s signature.

One piece of legislation, House Bill 4086, would exempt personal, travel pattern information gathered by new electronic payment methods used by TriMet, Portland’s regional transportation agency.

Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon, said in testimony to lawmakers it’s important to try and balance personal identifiable information in this ever-evolving technological world with the public’s need for a transparent government.

“The proposed protected information is clearly private and the public interest in disclosing personally identifiable information is outweighed by the customers’ right to privacy,” he said.

Emily Grannis, spokeswoman for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Northwest Watchdog that Oregon law already protects personal information.

“If the state is concerned about protecting individuals’ privacy, the existing public records law does that. These exemptions go beyond that concern to keep broad swaths of government information outside the scope of public access,” she said.

The other piece of legislation, House Bill 4093, encourages ranchers to help mitigate the environmental impact on the habitat of the sage grouse, a large ground dwelling bird, to keep it from being listed as endangered. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, a proponent of the bill, argues that allowing ranchers’ personal information to be obtained by environmental activists could open them up to safety concerns, such as bio-terrorism. They also say this would put Oregon in line with the federal Privacy Act.

Garnnis argues any effort by government officials to exempt public documents, especially those already protected by existing privacy laws, should send off alarm bells for transparent government advocates.

“There is always a concern when a state moves to restrict public access to government information,” she said. “Public records laws exist to give people insight into the way the government works, and to allow the public to hold the government accountable for its decisions.”

Contact Shelby Sebens at SSebens@Watchdog.org.

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