Oregon’s public records advocate on Friday urged her role be made explicitly independent from the governor’s office, following allegations attorneys for Gov. Kate Brown attempted to unduly influence her work.
In an emergency meeting of the Public Records Advisory Council, the state’s public records advocate and advisory council chair Ginger McCall said the state would not be able to find qualified candidates for the role if such independence were not achieved.
“What happened here is the very reason the public is cynical of the government,” said McCall, who announced last week she would be resigning from the job effective Oct. 11.
McCall’s resignation, after roughly 18 months on the job, came after she said members of the governor’s staff tried to strong-arm her to secretly represent the governor’s interest. The allegations have roiled the perceptions of the role, and spurred questions about Brown’s frequent insistence she supports public transparency.
The advisory council is charged with examining how public agencies respond to requests under Oregon’s public records law, as well as with making recommendations for improvements. The council is made up of journalists, lobbyists, state officials and members of the public.
At the emergency meeting Friday, the council approved a resolution that the advocate and the council be independent under state law and that the advocate be a direct hire of the council, rather than appointed by the governor. Two members of the council voted against the resolution.
McCall spoke passionately during the meeting about the need for the advocate to be free of any control — budget or otherwise — from elected officials. McCall said it should be the advisory panel — not the governor — who selects the advocate.
She also said any funding stream for the advocate’s budget needs to be independent and not influenced by an elected official.
The governor appoints the majority of the council.
“It’s my strong opinion that this (position) can’t be effective if it’s not independent,” McCall said in the meeting.
Les Zaitz, an investigative reporter and the editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, who also oversees the Salem Reporter, said the council would be “negligent” if they walked away without making it clear to the public that the advocate is an independent position.
Another reporter on the panel, Steve Suo, with The Oregonian, had a similar take: “What happened to Ginger McCall should never happen again.”
Several members of the council warned against rushing and instead wanted to move deliberately.
Another motion to investigate what took place between the governor’s general counsel and McCall failed. The motion was introduced by Scott Winkels, with the League of Oregon Cities.
Zaitz was one of the people who opposed it.
He voiced a concern it would divert attention from what is currently “undisputed history.” Zaitz argued it would distract from the mission of the council to provide public access to the government.
In explaining why she was resigning, McCall said earlier this week she was pressured by the governor’s outgoing general counsel, Misha Isaak, to represent the governor’s office over transparency.
“I have not only been pressured in this direction but I have been told that I should represent these interests while not telling anyone that I am doing so. I believe these actions constituted an abuse of authority on the part of the general counsel …,” McCall said at the time.
Brown proposed creating McCall’s position and the advisory council she oversees in 2017. The state Legislature gave Brown authority over the position.
After McCall’s concerns became public, the governor said she believes the position should be “truly independent.”