The state’s former public records advocate told lawmakers on Monday she didn’t need to create a theoretical story to illustrate how her position was undermined by political influence.
“Because I lived the actual story,” Ginger McCall testified to the Senate Committee on General Government and Emergency Preparedness.
McCall, Oregon’s first-ever public records advocate, has become a vocal champion pushing to ensure her former position becomes independent.
When McCall landed the job in Oregon, she pictured staying in the role for years. It was her dream job, she told lawmakers. She wouldn’t have left voluntarily. Even after the tragic death of her seven-week-old daughter in March 2019, she testified, she continued the work of training people on the public records law and helping people access documents. She was passionate about the job, one that she felt served an essential role.
But she could no longer withstand the pressure campaign.
McCall said she was pushed to secretly represent the governor’s political interests, even to the point it undermined her role as the public records advocate.
“I was told I worked for the governor, that I was to be ‘on the team,’ and that I was not to make it appear that I was in any way opposed to the governor’s interests or policies,” McCall testified.
But she said she was also told not to publicly acknowledge that she was representing the governor or her interests.
“Specifically, I was told not to tell members of the press that I was representing the governor’s interests — which put me in an impossible position … I was faced with the unpleasant choice of giving up my dream job or making an unethical misrepresentation to the council and the public regarding my allegiances,” McCall testified.
In order to restore trust to the position, McCall urged lawmakers to adopt Senate Bill 1506. The measure would articulate that the public records office is independent by clarifying whom the advocate reports to. This would make it difficult for the advocate to be put in the position of working for a secret political interest. The measure would also mandate that the advocate report to, and be hired and fired by the public records council, which is made up of journalists, lobbyists and state officials.
Before the 2018 election in which Gov. Kate Brown faced Republican Knute Buehler, the governor stopped the practice of releasing legislative concepts — essentially nascent bills that her office and state agencies might propose. Lobbyists had historically used those to prepare for the upcoming session.
The public records advocate bill, Senate Bill 1506, would also ensure proposed legislation would not need to be routed through the governor’s office.
“This is important because the governor’s office no longer releases legislative concepts in response to public records requests, and the withholding of discussions regarding the council’s legislative proposals would put the council, which is based on a principle of transparency, in an awkward position,” McCall said.
Democratic candidate for Secretary of State, Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, supported the effort to make the public records office independent. Nick Budnick, an investigative reporter with The Portland Tribune and member of the Society of Professional Journalists, also spoke in favor of the measure.
The lone voice against the measure was Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, and also a member of the public records advocate council.
Winkels is pushing an amendment to continue the advocate’s role under an elected official. He said limiting the power the governor had over the position could make it less efficient. Winkels’ amendment would also prevent the advocate from having a vote on the council. Other members of the public records board have said Winkels’ amendment would weaken the role significantly.
After questioning from lawmakers, Winkels said the League of Oregon cities had not taken a formal vote on the amendment.
Winkels said he was “enforcing a historical position” since he was part of the initial negotiations that created the position in 2017.
The next steps for the measure are unclear. If voted out of the general government committee, it would go to a budget committee. But lawmakers questioned that, since it’s uncertain whether there is a price tag attached to the measure.
Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said sending the bills to the budget committee could be a “death sentence.”
As soon as the cap-and-trade bill comes out of the budget committee it would likely “trigger a walkout from the Republicans,” Girod said.
The committee will evaluate whether the measure really needs to be sent to the budget committee before moving to the Senate floor.