(Note: The following resources are meant to provide a basic orientation and starting point for SB 481 and are not exhaustive. It is also not a substitute for professional legal services or auditing.)
In the past few years there have been several such changes that have affected, and are still affecting, the way agencies tackle requests from the public. For most agencies, these mandates and laws demand more accountability, faster responses, and cleaner reporting. For example, Washington state’s HB 1594 mandates specific annual reporting requirements and time limits for fulfilling requests.
As government bodies move to comply with new laws, they need better ways to manage requests, better record-keeping, and more efficient reviewing. Often, implementing public records request software is the easiest way to keep up with legislative changes, as states move toward greater transparency and timeliness overall.
For Oregon agencies, the recently enacted SB 481 dictates several changes to the law relating to public records. Understanding how this law affects request management is key to complying with state mandate and serving the public to the utmost.
Senate Bill 481 was voted on in the 2017 regular session of the 79th Oregon Legislative Assembly, effective January 1, 2018. According to the bill’s progress, it passed in the House and Senate with full support, sponsored by Senators Beyer and Kruse and Representatives Helm and Huffman, at the request of Attorney General Rosenblum.
Rosenblum herself formed the Public Records Law Reform Task Force in 2015 to “provide real recommendations for the legislature to improve transparency and access to information about our government.” This focus on greater transparency has been an ongoing mission for the office of the Attorney General, and the passing of SB 481 represented a major step in reform, updating 40 years of public records law.
The Attorney General gave the following statement: “During more than a year of Task Force meetings and listening sessions with journalists, advocates, and the public—we heard loud and clear that our public records laws are in need of reform. This bill addresses the issue of lack of timely access to records and begins to address the confusion created by forty years of piecemeal exemptions to laws originally intended to promote transparency.”
Prior to its introduction, some of the public, including journalists, were unhappy with long delays in records being released by some of the agencies and government bodies in the state because there were no clear deadlines laid out in the law.
In addition to SB 481, three other bills, SB 106 and HB 2101 and HB 3361, focused on public records. Together, they created a public records advocate position, set up a new committee for dealing with exemptions, and dealt with open data standards compliance.
Senate Bill 481 sets up several public records request guidelines, most importantly those establishing time frames for responding to requests, but also details fee structures and liability, and provides transparency around exemptions.
Five days to respond, then 10 days to fulfill. Agencies are required to complete their response to a request “as soon as practicable and without reasonable delay.” When a request is made, a government entity must acknowledge receipt within five business days and indicate whether it is the custodian of the requested records in one of three ways: that it is, that it is not, or that it is uncertain whether it is.
Said agency then has 10 business days after acknowledging receipt to complete the request (via one or more ways set forth per Section 4.2), either by providing access to records or by asserting exemptions that prohibit disclosure. This 10-day rule does not apply if it is deemed “impractical,” either because of lack of necessary staff, potential impediment to provision of other necessary services, or overall volume of requests being processed.
If the response includes a fee, the requestor has 60 days to pay the fee or the request may be closed after the deadline has passed.
SB 481 defines “business day” per its regulations as “a day other than Saturday, Sunday or a legal holiday and on which at least one paid employee of the public body that received the public records request is scheduled to and does report to work.” The law also provides leeway for special districts on days when their central administration offices are closed.
Also set forth in the bill is the limit of liability which describes an entity that, “acting in good faith, discloses a public record in response to a request for public records is not liable for any loss or damages based on the disclosure” unless prohibited by law or court order.
Requesters can “seek review” of a public body’s actions if the requester believes that the agency is failing to comply with timeframes or other parts of the law.
The law also stipulates that the Attorney General will maintain an updated “catalog of exemptions” that is “as comprehensive as possible [and] freely available to the public” in a searchable electronic format, so that the public is better informed about what records can and cannot be disclosed.
Fortunately, the law allows for times when requests for records are at an overwhelming volume and time limits cannot be met. However, your responsibility as an agency is still to respond to requests and release responsive records in a reasonable amount of time without delay. To comply with the law, not to mention to foster good will with the public, that means streamlining your processes. And if you are still working off of spreadsheets, flash drives, CDs and printouts, your best bet is implementing records request software to save time and to better manage the entire process.
For Oregon customers like the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, keeping compliant and timely is all about turning to software. Clients affected by similar law changes, like Washington State’s Puyallup Police Department, have seen increased efficiency and transparency by implementing FOIA software. Puyallup Records Supervisor Nichole McNiven says, “Our public records process prior to using NextRequest was time-consuming and inaccurate.” With better request management, they have greater accuracy and spend less time with search and reporting features.