As a member of the public, the public records law gives the right to inspect and copy most public records kept by state and local public bodies, including state and local governments, school districts, special districts and cities. Public bodies are required to make their public records procedures available to the public, and many public bodies post this information available online. These procedures must include the name and address of the public records custodian and information about how the public body calculates fees for processing public records requests.
A public record is any writing that contains information relating to the conduct of the public body's activities that is created or retained by the public body. "Writing" means handwriting, typewriting, printing, photographing and every means of recording, including letters, words, pictures, sounds and symbols, and all papers, maps or other documents.
Public bodies are not required to create records or to explain them; the law requires only that they produce records in the format in which they are retained. If data is stored and retrieved electronically, the public body must use the same software and programs to make the data available, when requested.
A public body must make the requested documents available for inspection during usual business hours within a reasonable time after the request, and body may impose reasonable restrictions to protect the integrity of the records and to prevent interference with the regular duties of the public body. The requestor must be provided with reasonable facilities for inspecting the documents and making notes and, if desired, to use the requestor's own equipment to make copies.
If the public body makes the copies, it may charge a reasonable fee for the actual reproduction of the documents and for the staff time to locate, review for exempt material, organize and compile the records, and to supervise the inspection and make the copies. The public body may request payment in advance, but may charge a fee in excess of $25 only if the requestor is given written notice and instructs the public body to proceed with making the records available. A public body may waive or reduce fees if it determines that doing so is in the public interest because making the records available primarily benefits the general public.
Not all public records must be made available for public inspection. For example, personal records, such as those kept in a personnel or medical file, are not subject to disclosure unless the person seeking disclosure can show that public disclosure would not invade the privacy of the subject of the record. Sensitive information such as financial account information and Social Security numbers are exempt from disclosure. Usually, records of criminal investigations need not be made public until the investigation is closed. This means that police departments and sheriff offices will often refuse a request for records if a criminal case is still current. Other exceptions to the requirement for public access include records that concern lawsuits in which the public body is a party, trade secrets, and certain business records of a private company that are submitted to a public body.
Records that a private citizen gives to a public body that are not required by law to be given to the body, on the condition that they will be kept confidential, will not be generally disclosed if the agency has agreed to keep the records confidential and if disclosure would cause harm to the public interest. Records exchanged between members of the same public body, or between public bodies, are not generally required to be disclosed to the extent they are advisory in nature and are preliminary to any final decision, if the agency believes the public interest in encouraging frank communication clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure. This is not a complete list of all the exceptions from disclosure, but if you ask for access to a public record, and it is not provided because the public body claims it is an exemption applies, you may want to ask for the exemption that covers your request.
If you are denied access to a public record by a public body (other than an elected official), you may petition the attorney general of the state of Oregon if it is a state record, or the district attorney of your county if it is a local government record. The attorney general or district attorney has seven days to review your petition and to grant or deny it. If your petition is granted, the public body must produce the record in seven days. If your petition is denied, you may ask for a review of this decision in the courts. If the record you seek is in the hands of an elected official, you must go to court, not to the attorney general or the district attorney, to petition for disclosure. If your request is denied by an elected official, you must seek review in Marion County Circuit court, or the circuit court in the county where the elected official is located.
Remember, the general rule in Oregon is full disclosure to the public except in specific cases. You have a right to know what the government is doing. All you need to do is ask.
Updated October 2011