Ginger McCall, Oregon’s first-ever public records’ advocate, returned to the state Wednesday to urge her former colleagues to ensure her former position becomes independent.
McCall resigned in September, roughly 18 months into the job, and she alleged attorneys for Gov. Kate Brown attempted to unduly influence her work.
The state’s Public Records Advisory Council is supporting legislation to ensure the advocate and council are independent under state law. It would also make the advocate a direct hire of the council, rather than a position appointed by the governor. The legislation is expected to be under consideration in the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off Feb. 3.
But at issue is an amendment from Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, who also happens to be a member of the public advisory council.
The amendment Winkels is proposing, McCall argued during a meeting of the council on Wednesday and in written testimony, would restrict the council and the advocate’s roles.
“… on its face, the League’s proposal looks like a plain attempt to ensure that the Council and Advocate are significantly weakened and the League’s interest in secrecy is protected,” McCall wrote.
The League, which represents the interests of local governments across Oregon, is proposing the advocate continue to answer to an elected official and not be given a voting seat on the public advisory council.
The advisory council is charged with examining how public agencies respond to requests under Oregon’s public records law, as well as making recommendations for improvements. The council is made up of journalists, lobbyists, state officials and members of the public.
All of the public testimony during the meeting was in favor of ensuring the advocate is an independent position and against Winkels’ legislative proposal.
Winkels said League officials worry that making the advocate independent would make it harder to ensure the person is held to account. He is the only member of the advisory council pushing for a less independent advocate.
The League’s amendment would keep the advocate operating in a fashion similar to other state agency heads; they are under the executive branch and must work in alignment with the governor’s agenda.
The Oregon Territory Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists pointed out the importance of public records: “The law has led to the conviction of corrupt public officials, needed reforms, and saved the public untold millions,” journalists Rachel Alexander and Nick Budnick wrote in testimony.
“For these reasons, our members believe Oregon needs a robust Records Advocate’s office, one that is independent and has the ability to propose reforms. To fulfill that mission, the Advocate’s office should be fully staffed with dedicated funding, similar to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.”
The public advisory council is also in the process of recruiting for McCall’s replacement.
Gov. Kate Brown proposed creating McCall’s position and the advisory council she oversees in 2017, partly in response to the scandal that led to her predecessor’s resignation. The Legislature gave Brown authority over the position.
After McCall raised the issue, Brown eventually said she supports making the position more independent.
“I see now that the structure of the Advocate position, which I supported, was flawed from the beginning,” the governor said in a statement in September.
“Given their policy roles, the Advocate and the Public Records Advisory Council could not be truly independent as long as they were overseen by the Governor’s office, or any other elected official for that matter. Under this structure, any meaningful supervision had the potential to be seen as politically-motivated meddling, even if it was not intended that way.”