Oregon's first public records advocate quits
Oregon's first-ever public records advocate is resigning from her post on Oct. 11.
Ginger McCall, appointed by Gov. Kate Brown in early 2018 to boost transparency and openness in state and local government, said she was stepping down after what she called "meaningful pressure" from the governor's office to represent its interests in her role on the state's Public Records Advisory Council.
Willamette Week first reported McCall's resignation.
McCall sent two resignation letters: one to the advisory council, and a second to Gov. Kate Brown.
In her letter to Brown, McCall wrote that she believed she and the governor's office had "conflicting visions" of the public records advocate's role. She felt the role should have "a high degree of independence and serve the public interest," she wrote in her letter, but said the governor's office didn't agree. She wrote that she was pressured to represent the interests of the governor's office, "even when those interests conflict with the will of the council and the mandate of the Office of the Public Records Advocate."
"I have not only been pressured in this direction, but I have been told that I should represent these interests while not telling anyone that I am doing so," McCall wrote. "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 she "made multiple attempts to find a workable solution, but at this point I no longer believe these conflicting visions of my role can be reconciled."
In a resignation letter to the state Public Records Advisory Council, of which she was a member, McCall was less explicit, but alluded to her concern that the role be independent.
"This office serves an essential role in connecting the public with the government," McCall wrote. "In order to do this, though, the office must be independent, operating to serve the public and not partisan political interests. I hope that the council will dedicate itself to protecting that independence and select a candidate who is equally devoted to that goal."
When reached by the Oregon Capital Bureau, McCall did not comment immediately Monday morning, Sept. 9, but said she would provide a statement to the media.
The governor's office denied McCall's claims. "The allegations made by Ms. McCall are untrue," Chris Pair, a spokesman for Brown, wrote in a statement to the Oregon Capital Bureau.
When the governor proposed the role of advocate and the advisory council on public records two years ago, she did so hoping they would "act independently" to help resolve public records disputes and train public bodies on public records law, Pair said.
"When creating the Office of the Public Records Advocate, the Legislature decided to put the position under the governor's authority and did not have the inclination to make it independent of the executive branch," Pair said. "In the future, as it always has been, the governor looks forward to the continued engagement and recommendations of the council regarding both the next public records advocate and the next reforms the Legislature should address."
McCall was hired by Brown to boost openness in state and local government. Brown initially entered the governorship in 2015, when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned in the midst of an influence-peddling scandal, and Brown promised to champion transparency.
Several months after taking office, Washington, D.C.'s Center for Public Integrity gave Oregon an "F" grade on government accountability and transparency. In November, the state advisory council released its first report detailing its work on government transparency. It also identified numerous issues with how Oregon's public bodies handle requests for public information.
September 9, 2019
Dear Governor Brown,
The purpose of this letter is to announce my resignation from my position as Public Records Advocate, effective October 11, 2019.
This was not an easy decision. This has been a wonderful opportunity and, on a personal note, I greatly appreciate the support you gave me during a very difficult time in my life.
I cannot, however, continue to serve in this role as I had hoped, because 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. 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. That is an understanding that I believe the public, the Legislature, and the Public Records Advisory Council share.
Meetings with the Governor's General Counsel and staff have made it clear, however, that the Governor's staff do not share that view. I have received meaningful pressure from the Governor's General Counsel to represent the Governor's Office's interests on the Public Records Advisory Council, even when those interests conflict with the will of the Council and the mandate of the Office of the Public Records Advocate. I have not only been pressured in this direction but I have been told that I should represent these interests while not telling anyone that I am 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.
While I have always endeavored to work collaboratively with all offices of government, I believe strongly that independence is both essential to the effectiveness of the Office of the Public Records Advocate and enshrined in the law. However, if I am incorrect regarding the legal basis of the Advocate's independence, then the Advocate's responsibility to represent the interests of the Governor's office should be acknowledged before the public and the Council. If the Advocate were to represent the interests of an elected official while allowing the Council and the public to believe that she is acting independently, that would be both unethical and particularly inappropriate for an office that was founded to promote transparency.
I have made multiple attempts to find a workable solution, but at this point I no longer believe these conflicting visions of my role can be reconciled. As such I must, with regret, tender my resignation.
I hold you in great esteem and greatly admire the spirit demonstrated in the creation of the Public Records Advocate. The existence of such an office is an important step in ensuring transparency and accountability in the operation of government. It is my hope that these are just growing pains along that path and that a way is still found to fulfill that original spirit. I wish you much success in that effort.
And personally, I remain thankful for being given the opportunity to start this office and participate in this work. It has been a unique and meaningful experience, and at times a real pleasure, and for all these things I am deeply grateful. I am honored to have been allowed to serve the people of Oregon.
Ginger P. McCall
Oregon Public Records Advocate
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