Oregon's open government laws promote democracy by ensuring that all state, regional and local governments conduct their business with transparency. Oregon citizens have a right to know how their government is spending their tax dollars and exercising the powers granted by the people. The public performs a vital watchdog role by invoking the Public Records and Public Meetings Laws to seek and disseminate information about how the government is functioning.
Table of Contents
1. PUBLIC RECORDS
What is a public record?
With a few exceptions, all government records of any kind are considered public records. Specifically, a "public record" is any writing that contains information relating to the conduct of public business that is prepared, owned, used or retained by a public body.
Who is subject to Public Records Law?
The law applies to every "public body," which includes every state officer, agency, department, bureau, board and commission; every county and city governing body, school district, special district, municipal corporation or any board, department, commission, council or agency thereof.
How do I request a public record?
You must make a public records request to the "custodian" of the record. The "custodian" of a public record is the government agency or official who has possession or control of the record or a copy of it. It is preferable to make the request in writing, which includes email. You are entitled to request a copy of a record or the opportunity to inspect it. The more specific your request, the easier it will be for the public body to respond in a timely manner. If you are unsure about the potential scope of a request, it is helpful to begin with a narrow request. Once the public body has responded to your initial request, you can seek additional records. All public bodies in Oregon must make available a written procedure for making public records requests. Public bodies are required to respond to records requests in a reasonable amount of time. You may Submit a Public Records Request electronically for records that are in the possession of the Oregon Department of Justice.
Can a government agency charge citizens for copies of public records?
Public agencies may charge a fee to recover the cost of fulfilling a records request. An agency cannot charge more than $25 without first providing an estimate. A public agency may require that you pay the estimated cost up front. You also have the right to ask for the fee to be waived or reduced because it is in the public's interest to release the records. You can appeal a public agency's refusal to waive the fee. The appeals process is explained below.
Are all public records subject to disclosure?
Most public records are subject to disclosure, but there are exemptions. Records related to an active criminal investigation are generally exempt from disclosure until the case is resolved. Confidential communications between government officials and government lawyers are generally exempt from disclosure. If a public body claims an exemption, it generally must show that the need for confidentiality outweighs the public interest in disclosure under the particular circumstances. When making a public records request, it can be helpful to describe the public interest in releasing the records. If a public agency rejects your request and you appeal, the public body will be required to show that its denial was consistent with the law. For a list of exemptions and a discussion of their application, you may consult the Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual. Please note that the current version does not reflect changes made by the Legislature in 2009.
What can I do if a government agency denies my request for public records?
A public records denial by a state agency, board or commission may be appealed free of charge to the Oregon Attorney General (see Appeal a State Agency's Denial of Your Request for Records). It is helpful to forward the agency's written explanation for denying your request. A denial by a local government such as a county, city, school district or special district must be appealed to the county district attorney. If the Attorney General or District Attorney denies your appeal, you may file a lawsuit challenging the ruling in Circuit Court.
What can I do if my records request is denied by an elected official?
If an elected official, such as a mayor or a sheriff or a statewide elected official denies your request for public records, you cannot appeal to the Attorney General or District Attorney. To challenge the decision, you must file the lawsuit in Circuit Court.
2. PUBLIC MEETINGS
What is a public meeting?
A public meeting is any meeting conducted by a state, regional or local governing body to decide or consider any matter. For the meeting to be subject to open meeting law, a majority must be present.
What agencies are required to hold public meetings?
The public meetings law applies to the governing body of any state agency, regional government, city, county, school district, special district or municipal corporation. It also applies to any subcommittee of any of these public bodies. Staff meetings generally are not covered by the Public Meetings Law. If less than a majority is present, the meeting is not covered by the Public Meetings Law.
What are the notice requirements for public meetings?
A governing body must provide notice that is reasonably calculated to inform the public and all interested parties about the time, place and agenda of public meetings.
Can public meetings be conducted by telephone or other electronic means?
Public meetings may be conducted electronically, but the public must have adequate notice and access to the meeting - no matter how it is conducted.
Can members of the public be excluded from a public meeting?
A meeting can be closed to the public if a governing body goes into Executive Session. The law governing Executive Session is designed to allow a public body to have confidential discussions, but does not allow any decisions to be made in secret. All decisions by a governing body must be made in public. Reasons for Executive Session include discussions about labor negotiations or the hiring or disciplining of a public employee. Journalists may attend most Executive Sessions, but cannot report or broadcast what was said. A list of exempt meetings and reasons for executive sessions are in the online Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual.
What are the rules for keeping minutes?
Public bodies must keep a record of their public meetings. Written minutes are acceptable, as are audio or video recordings. Written minutes must include the members present; all motions, resolutions and other actions; any votes that were taken; and the substance of any discussion.
How does the public enforce violations of the Public Meetings Law?
A citizen who believes that a public body has violated the Public Meetings Law can file a lawsuit in Circuit Court. If you believe that a public official has violated Executive Session provisions of the law, you may file a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. Neither the Attorney General nor a district attorney may assist a citizen in enforcing the Public Meetings Law.
Note: This general information about Oregon's Public Records and Meetings Laws is provided for informational purposes only. This summary is not intended to be complete and the reader is responsible for any conclusion drawn from this information. This summary is not legal advice or an opinion of the Attorney General (see official Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual).