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Opinion » Editorial

High Noon for Open Government

Kroger is on the right side in this fight, and the government agencies that think their own convenience is more important than the public's right to information are on the wrong side.

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When a new sheriff rides into town the locals sometimes can get riled up, especially if the old sheriff's been there a long time and the new sheriff has a different way of doing things.

That's the situation John Kroger finds himself in. Kroger was elected in 2008 to succeed Hardy Myers as Oregon's attorney general, after Myers had been in the job for 12 years.

Kroger is an ex-Marine with an undergrad degree from Yale, a law degree from Harvard and a resumé that includes prosecuting Mafia thugs and Enron crooks. As attorney general he's aggressively gone after bad guys ranging from pharmaceutical companies to child pornographers to giant Wall Street banks.

Kroger's activist posture has ruffled more than a few feathers, but now two bills he's backing have made him enemies in some unlikely places - the halls of state and local governments in Oregon.

Kroger's bills, SB 41 and SB 47, aim to make government more transparent by setting deadlines for delivering public information in response to requests and capping the amount of fees agencies could charge to recipients. They also would remove some of the exemptions that currently allow some records to be kept secret.

A spokesman for Kroger told the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group when the bills were introduced in January that "we don't foresee any significant opposition." Damn, did he get that wrong.

State and local governments and the League of Oregon Cities piled on, complaining that the legislation would place an unbearable burden on their staffs and budgets. Even the city government of Portland, which has more than 20 staffers working in its communications department, whined that it couldn't possibly comply with the deadlines.

Hoping to appease the critics in government, Kroger agreed to make the deadlines longer for complicated record requests. But that brought the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association into the battle, complaining that the change gave agencies too much leeway. Sometimes you just can't make anybody happy.

Right now the chances of Kroger's reforms getting enacted look slim at best. Kroger himself rates them at 50-50; veteran students of the legislature say the odds are considerably worse than that.

There's no question the reforms are needed. OSPIRG says it once took two months for it to get hold of public records about state tax breaks. State Sen. Larry George (R-Sherwood) told The Oregonian that there are "a lot of people in the [government] agencies who have gotten really complacent about stiff-arming the public."

Kroger might have been more diplomatic as well as more politically astute in how he fought for the reforms. It's pretty clear he didn't have all his ducks in a row before he went charging into the legislature.

Nevertheless, Kroger is on the right side in this fight, and the government agencies that think their own convenience is more important than the public's right to information are on the wrong side. So we're applying THE BOOT in the hope it'll jar them out of their complacency and remind them who they're supposed to be working for.

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