Our Opinion: Transparency takes a hit in Salem
A respected, valued state employee gave notice last week because the people she reports to were not letting her do her job.
How do we know that?
Because public employees' resignation letters are public documents. As taxpayers, we have a right to know who gets hired by government agencies, what they get paid, and why they leave their jobs. It's known as transparency — shorthand for the concept that a democracy requires the public having the right to information about their governments, from the local school board to the White House.
Ginger McCall was hired to fight for transparency in Oregon, and when Gov. Kate Brown's office secretly tried to muzzle her, she resigned. She did so, knowing that her resignation letter, as well as notes she took about meetings with the governor's staff, are not the property of Brown, but belong to all Oregonians.
And those public documents, obtained by several media outlets, are damning — particularly to a governor elected on a promise of increasing transparency.
In fact, Brown has her job thanks to her predecessor's efforts to shut down scrutiny of influence pedaling in his office.
John Kitzhaber was forced to resign after he failed to hide public documents showing his
fiancÉe, Cylvia Hayes, was using her connection to the governor's office for personal gain.
So, it was no surprise that when then-Secretary of State Brown assumed Oregon's highest office, she vowed to make transparency in state government one of her highest priorities.
Apparently, her staff didn't get the memo.
McCall was hired as the state's first public records advocate 18 months ago, a move recommended by a public records reform task force set up after the Kitzhaber controversy. The task force also called for a Public Records Advisory Council to work with the records advocate.
Brown took the idea and put forward a bill to create the position. It was both good policy and good politics, as Republicans had been trashing Democrats as the party of scandal and secrecy.
Brown's proposal, however, diverged from the task force position in one key way. The task force, appointed by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, called for an "independent advocate." Brown wanted the employee to operate out of the Department of Administrative services, an agency she closely controlled.
When the Society of Professional Journalists and others questioned why an "independent" advocate would be under the governor's authority, Brown compromised, agreeing to house the new position in the Secretary of State's office.
But regardless of where the office was located physically, the assumption was that McCall would report to the advisory council.
Brown's staff thought otherwise.
According McCall's notes, during multiple meetings with lawyers on Brown's staff, she was encouraged to be part of the governor's "team" and to clear her recommendations with the governor. When asked for clarification on her role, McCall's notes show that general counsel Misha Isaak told her "the advocate worked for the governor and the governor is free to intercede." And, he cautioned her not to tell anyone of her new marching orders.
Given that clear message from the governor's top lawyer, McCall — who has a degree from Cornell Law School — concluded that she could not be truly independent. Once she found a new job, working for the federal government, she resigned.
The governor's office response is both telling and troubling.
Once the resignation letter was picked up in the media, spokesman Chris Pair issued a statement labeling McCall a liar.
Brown weighed in later, throwing both Pair and Isaak under the gubernatorial bus, saying, "It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the governor and promoting the cause of transparency."
Brown has tried to get ahead of the controversy by meeting privately with McCall and calling on the advisory council to propose changes to ensure that McCall's replacement is truly independent.
The council, in an emergency session Friday, started that process, passing a resolution that state law clarify that the advocate and the council are independent and that the advocate be hired of the council, rather than the governor.
That's a good start. But more needs to be done when lawmakers meet in 2020, including:
• Reducing the number of appointments the governor can make to the Public Records Advisory Council. The governor currently appoints a majority of the members.
• Providing a guaranteed funding stream for the council, like that of the State Ethics Commission, that supports additional staffing.
• Passing legislation, derailed by Brown's staff this year, to require state agencies to annually report how long it takes them to respond to public records request. (It was this proposal, which came from the council, that got McCall crosswise with Isaak.)
McCall did an amazing job during her short tenure. Some advocates of open government were wary of her concerns over personal privacy and, as we now know, staffers in the governors' office thought she was going too far in her quest for transparency.
In our view, that shows that she was trying to be independent. If Oregon hopes to find a replacement as good as McCall, such independence must be a guaranteed part of the job description, not a hollow campaign promise.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.