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Editorial: Records advocate must assert independence

Editorial: Records advocate must assert independence


First, this proviso: We don't pretend to know all the details about the reasons why Ginger McCall, the state's first public records advocate, has chosen to resign her post effective Oct. 11.

But if you take McCall's statements at face value, this is a troubling development for advocates of a truly open and transparent state government.

McCall was hired about 18 months ago as the public records advocate, a new position in state government. The position, which Gov. Kate Brown had lobbied for, was part of a worthwhile legislative effort to refurbish the state's public records law, which was suffering from decades of neglect. The legislative work that created McCall's position was among the most substantial steps forward in state government openness for more than a quarter-century.

McCall's job, in essence, was to improve access to the state's public records and mediate disputes between the public and state and local government agencies over those records. 

Readers with long memories might recall a bit of a tussle during the 2017 session about where precisely McCall's office should be placed in state government. Eventually, lawmakers decided that the office should be part of the Secretary of State's Archives Division, even though at least some legislators wanted to make the office fully independent. The idea to place the office within the Secretary of State's Office in theory allowed the advocate at least some distance to act independently of the governor.

Based on McCall's public statements this week, it may not have been enough distance.

In her letter of resignation, McCall cited pressure from the governor's office to take the governor's side on records issues. 

"When I accepted this job, it was with the understanding that the Office of the Public Records Advocate was to operate with a high degree of independence and had a mandate to serve the public interest," she wrote in her resignation letter to the governor. "Meetings with the governor's general counsel and staff have made it clear, however, that the governor's staff do not share that view."

For their part, representatives of the governor at first denied McCall's allegations: Brown's communications director, Chris Pair, emailed a statement to OPB saying "the allegations made by Ms. McCall are untrue."

But Brown herself seemed to walk that back a bit with a later statement: "It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the governor and promoting the cause of transparency. Let me be clear, there should be no conflict."

When Brown assumed the governor's office after the resignation of John Kitzhaber, she said she wanted to make transparency a priority of her administration. But her record on this has been decidedly: Suffice it to say that we have not seen anything from her office that makes us think that transparency has been a touchstone of her administration.

The governor's Monday statement said that she wants the Public Records Advisory Council, the body that works with the advocate, to propose legislation to "create a truly independent position."

Here's where that discussion could start: As we read the law creating the council, the governor appoints eight of the council's 13 members. When it comes time to select a new records advocate, the council submits three finalists to the governor, who makes the final decision. (The governor also can remove the advocate "for cause.") The next legislative session could reduce the number of gubernatorial appointees to the council and also could amend the law so that the council itself selects the advocate, sending its selection to the Senate for confirmation. Legislators also should revisit the issue of making the office an independent agency, as was the original intent of at least some legislators.

Brown herself should lead the push for these reforms — and also should do some soul-searching about other ways to make good on that promise she made years ago about transparency. (mm)


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