The resignation of Oregon’s former public records advocate, Ginger McCall, still echoes with consequences.
First, over the holidays, The Oregonian reported on an investigation from Gov. Kate Brown’s office. It concluded that a member of the governor’s staff did not pressure McCall to take the governor’s side. An attorney hired by the governor’s office authored the report. McCall has challenged it.
Second, a related bill is on the Oregon Legislature’s agenda for the 2021 session. Legislative Concept 1478 attempts to make it clear that Oregon’s Public Records Advocate is to be an independent office. The governor would no longer get to appoint the advocate. The state’s Public Records Advisory Council would.
Oregon actually has good laws that are supposed to ensure the public gets access to government records and government meetings. But sometimes because of lack of training of government employees or a desire for secrecy, it can be hard for the public to get access. The public records advocate is supposed to help with both.
The advocate position is relatively new. With any new position there can be a lack of clarity how it should work.
McCall resigned, in part, when she believed Misha Isaak, now the former general counsel to the governor, was using his political power to exert pressure on her to pursue the governor’s agenda on public records but to tell no one.
LC 1478 will not settle every question about how the advocate is supposed to operate. It should help. The purpose of the public records advocate should be to improve understanding of the existing law, help mediate public records disputes, point out walls blocking transparency and recommend fixes.
Another bill for the 2021 session, Legislative Concept 2036, is one of those fixes. It would mean the Public Records Advisory Council would do a survey every even-numbered year.
The existing law just says the surveys should be done “periodically.” The survey would be used to determine how state agencies and other public bodies are complying with the public records law — what fees they are charging, what decisions they have made about records that are exempt from disclosure and other questions the council deems appropriate.
Oregonians can’t know how the public records law is working without information like that. We urge the 2021 Legislature to pass it.