Our Opinion: Transparency loses a champion in Oregon
A respected, valued state employee is leaving her post this month because the people to whom she reports weren't letting her do her job.
How do we know that?
We have, as the kids say, the receipts.
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 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, don't belong to Brown, and they won't be filed away in a drawer somewhere in Salem. They belong to all Oregonians, and they're out in the open now.
The documents 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 fiancee, 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 potraying 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 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."
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, she resigned.
The governor's office response is both telling and troubling.
Once the resignation letter was picked up in the media (first by Willamette Week), spokesman Chris Pair issued a statement to Oregon Public Broadcasting 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 agreeing to meet privately with McCall and calling on the advisory council to propose changes to ensure that McCall's replacement is truly independent.
Such steps should be made a priority in next year's short legislative session and should include:
• Clear, explicit language in Oregon law that the Oregon public records advocate is an independent office and that the advocate reports to the Public Records Advisory Council.
• Authorization for the council to hire the advocate. Currently, the governor hires the advocate from a list of three names submitted by the council.
• A reduction in the number of appointments the governor can make to the Public Records Advisory Council. The governor currently appoints a majority of the members.
• Returning the advocate's physical office to the Secretary of State, who oversees the archiving of public records and is less influenced than the governor by state agencies.
• A guaranteed funding stream, like that of the State Ethics Commission, that supports additional staffing.
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.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)