Oregon public records advocate quits, citing interference

Oregon's first public records advocate announced her resignation, saying Gov. Kate Brown's office abused its authority.

Posted: Sep 9, 2019 3:47 PM
Updated: Sep 9, 2019 5:00 PM

By ANDREW SELSKY Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon's first public records advocate announced her resignation Monday, saying Gov. Kate Brown's office abused its authority and wanted her to secretly work for the governor while giving the impression she was working in the public interest.

Ginger McCall said when she accepted the governor's appointment as Oregon's Public Records Advocate in January 2018, filling a position created by the Legislature the previous year, it was with the understanding that she was to operate independently and with a mandate to serve the public interest.

Instead, McCall says Brown's top lawyer, Misha Isaak, pressured her to represent the governor's interests, while not telling anyone that she was doing so.

"I believe these actions constituted an abuse of authority on the part of the General Counsel, and are counter to the transparency and accountability mission that I was hired to advance," McCall said in her resignation letter to Brown, a copy of which The Associated Press obtained through a public records request.

Chris Pair, the Democratic governor's communications director, said the Legislature put the position under the governor's authority and did not have the inclination to make it independent of the executive branch.

However, the bill appears vague on that point.

Republican lawmakers cried foul.

"Transparency is critical in any ethical administration," said Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby. "I applaud Ginger for standing strong against enormous pressure to act in a manner which would have been counter to the mandate of her office."

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, whose is fighting to get public records in a case that has pitted him against Senate President Peter Courtney, said McCall's resignation is based on "ethics and abuse of power" in state government.

A sign that McCall and the governor's office had different impressions about the authority of the new position emerged during a meeting McCall had with Isaak on Jan. 15, after the Public Records Advisory Council published a report in November that described roadblocks to public records access. McCall leads that council.

The roadblocks to making state and local government more transparent included:

- Lack of a statewide standard in charging fees for public records requests, which "are a perennial source of animosity, confusion, and frustration for public bodies and requesters alike."

- An absence of recourses, except to the courts, if a records request is denied by an elected official. That creates a lack of accountability for elected officials because going to court is often prohibitively costly and time-consuming for a records requester.

- A very large number of exemptions to Oregon's public records law, numbering at least 550.

Isaak told McCall that if she planned to file future reports, to send them to the governor's office first so governor's office could comment, according to a memo of the meeting kept by McCall.

McCall said the governor's office and others had previously told her the public records advocate's position was intended to be independent. She said that when she asked in spring 2018 whom she would report to, the governor's office replied that she did not report to them.

McCall said she is leaving on Oct. 11 and will be returning to Washington to take a job with the federal government.

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