PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- A journalist able to avoid being shut out of a public meeting by looking up the law on a cell phone is a small victory for Oregon Attorney General John Kroger in a battle over government transparency.
The journalist was able to use the state public records and meetings manual to keep the meeting open because Kroger recently put it online for the first time.
Now, the attorney general says, the manual is accessible without charge to anybody with an Internet connection, instead of plunking down $25 for the print version.
"I thought it was a mistake to charge citizens and make them pay for our summary of what the law requires," Kroger told The Associated Press.
Kroger this year launched a campaign to improve government transparency. Putting the public records and meetings manual online was an easy task. His larger goal is far more ambitious: clearing away some of the nearly 430 exemptions to the 1973 Oregon public records law that tangle up access to government documents.
The first-term attorney general has his work cut out for him. Legislators may well have greater priorities when they meet in 2011, such as job creation. And he may find himself going up against special interest groups that put many of the public records exemptions on the books.
"When you go to the Legislature there's usually nothing in your political background or you get from your constituents that makes public records a top issue," said Tom Gallagher, a lobbyist for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.
"There's not a hue and cry from the general public anymore."
News organizations, which frequently face resistance to obtaining government documents while performing their duties of keeping the public informed, are hoping Kroger is able to bring about significant changes in the public records law. They point out that greater transparency benefits not just news organizations, but the public at large.
"We applaud the push to increase transparency in state government," said Therese Bottomly, a managing editor at The Oregonian. "These are significant issues, not just for newspapers, but for any member of the public."
Passed during the Watergate era when the outcry over cover-ups by President Richard Nixon and his aides had reached a fever pitch, Oregon's public records statutes were once considered to be models for ensuring government openness, but that has been weakened by exemptions. An additional obstacle to ensuring government transparency has been the rising cost of getting access to documents.
Under Oregon law, an agency may recover its "actual cost," including charges for staff time to locate, review and redact the records, and the cost of time spent by the agency's attorney for review and redaction. The costs can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars in charges to look at records that are supposed to be accessible to the public.
"Increasingly the fees charged by state agencies are becoming an impediment to the free flow of information," said Bottomly.
Lee van der Voo, of the Oregon and southwest Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, is drafting a letter to Kroger listing concerns and recommendations.
She plans to include a sample of nearly identical public records requests made in Oregon and Washington that was 25 times more expensive in Oregon.
Kroger's counterpart to the north, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna, says the cost difference may be partly because Washington law limits charges for copying. He said the state is pushing hard to store all records in digital electronic format that can be quickly and cheaply reproduced.
But McKenna says even digital records carry costs, including time spent redacting protected or unrelated information in records.
Kroger said small news organizations are especially at a disadvantage, because they may be less able to afford an attorney to press the case for access to records.
"If you have a large media outlet and they're not getting a result they can go get a lawyer," Kroger said. "But if you're a small media outlet or an ordinary citizen, it's out of the question. The process can't be dependent on forcing small media outlets and individual citizens to lawyer up to force government to hand something over."
Van der Voo is also recommending firm deadlines for agencies to meet public records requests, something Kroger says he supports.
Kroger says his review of Oregon law will include comparisons to public records laws in all 49 other states, to see how they handle costs and conflicts between public interest and individual privacy.
He said Florida is often cited as good example of transparency, even though it is considered a more conservative state politically than Oregon.
"It shows transparency isn't a left or right thing," Kroger said. "It's something that everyone in the country thinks is appropriate."
Kroger has not yet made any concrete proposals for improving government transparency. Before he does that, he is conducting public meetings around the state to hear comments, suggestions and complaints.
Legislative leaders so far are saying they are willing to listen to the proposals Kroger comes up with.
Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt says he believes Kroger will find support in the Legislature, but points out this may not be a seen as a high priority among voters.
"It certainly doesn't rise on voter radar screens up to the level of how do you help them get a job or how do you help them put food on the table," said Hunt, a Democrat from Clackamas County.
A spokesman for House Republicans, Nick Smith, said they support Kroger and the push for transparency in principle "but it is hard to say much more until he puts more details on the table."
While acknowledging the challenges he faces, Kroger insists he is sincere about making government more open and accessible.
"It's an untenable position to say we don't want more transparency," Kroger said.