Following the resignation of Oregon's public records advocate over political pressure, a divide is emerging on a key Senate committee over what powers and responsibilities the next advocate should have.
Reformers, including members of a state advisory board formed to improve access to public records, say it should be up to that public records panel to appoint an advocate. So does Gov. Kate Brown, who has been stung by former advocate Ginger McCall's claims that top aides to Brown pushed her to conform to the governor's political agenda.
The chairman of the Senate Business and General Government Committee, however, has reservations about the proposal — and believes McCall leaned "way too far" in favor of public records requestors in her position.
McCall left office at the end of last week. She said in September she was resigning because she felt unable to square her advocacy for more government transparency with the political demands of being Brown's appointee — including "meaningful pressure" to serve the governor's interests that she considered "an abuse of authority" by Misha Isaak, Brown's general counsel.
"I do not think that the staff of the governor's office and I can reconcile our visions regarding the role of the public records advocate," McCall wrote in a letter to the public records advisory council, which she chaired in her capacity as advocate.
Since McCall announced her resignation, Brown has publicly called for changes to the position and the appointment structure.
"I agree with Ginger that the public records advocate should be truly independent," Brown said in a Sept. 9 statement.
Mark Hass, a Beaverton Democrat who is running for secretary of state, called last week for a change to the law to make it so the advocate is appointed by an advisory council, not by the governor. The current system "undermines transparency reform," Hass argued.
A bill in a divided committee
Hass said he's trying to get something done in the Legislature during next year's short legislative session. He expects there to be a committee bill in the Senate Business and General Government Committee, which is chaired by Democratic Sen. Chuck Riley of Hillsboro.
Among all of the bills that pass through legislative committees in the Capitol, committee bills are generally considered to have an inside track because they have already been developed with committee members' input.
However, Riley isn't throwing his support behind the committee bill yet. He said it will be up to the legislators who have seats on the public records advisory council — namely, Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie — to write the bill.
"I'm merely giving them a place to put a bill in and see what happens," Riley said.
Riley's committee had a hand in the bills that created McCall's position in 2017. The Hillsboro senator said he believes media outlets and others have distorted the original intent of the role.
"This public records advocate, the title is misleading from what we intended it to be," Riley said. "It was meant to be equally helpful to both public records requestors and the agencies."
He doesn't like the word "advocate" to describe the position.
"We want it to be more of a moderator. That was what the goal was, to have a moderator so they could help the agencies to do the work, teach them how to do the work, make things easier to happen, and help the people that are doing requesting to make sure that they were requesting in a proper way and they were doing something reasonable," Riley said.
He added, "Somehow, the word 'advocate' got put in. The advocacy is OK, but it should be an advocate for both the requestor and the agency."
Council endorses sweeping reforms
Meanwhile, the public records advisory council, or PRAC, agreed Oct. 1 that it should appoint the public records advocate. The 2017 law gives that authority to the governor, although she is directed to choose one of three candidates named by the advisory council.
The council also agreed it should have a stronger hand in pushing bills, including being able to lobby for or against bills related to public records and having the ability to ask legislators directly to introduce bills. Other commissions have to go through the governor's office to do that.
Power said Monday that she and Thatcher "have agreed to introduce what the PRAC lands on."
For his part, Riley isn't sold on the council's proposal.
"I honestly don't think they should be appointing the advocate," he said. "And I don't think it should be called 'advocate' anymore, frankly."
The Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2430, making the public records advisory council permanent. The council was originally supposed to expire at the end of this year. Riley voted for that bill, but he said he still doesn't see the point of the council continuing on.
"I still think they're not needed after they do their work, which is to get this set up, figure out what exemptions make sense, give the Legislature some feedback," Riley said. "At that point, I think they've done (their) work."
In contrast, Hass wants to strengthen and restructure the council.
"The council's 12-member voting body is dominated (by) government representatives. This is a mistake," Hass said in a statement last week, adding, "In order to better promote access, transparency advocates should have a greater voice on the council."
Even if he opposes it, Riley said he doesn't intend to use the power of his gavel to stop the bill if it has three other senators' support on the committee.
"The only reason I ever sit on a bill is if I don't have the votes," he said. "If we have the votes, I'll put it out."
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