Oregon's public records advocate squeezed by politics, resigns
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."
The governor's agenda
In a statement the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 9, McCall said that it had been a "pleasure serving the people of Oregon" and expressed pride for the work of the council. She said she is taking a job with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
McCall also provided two memos of recent meetings with governor's office staff. McCall met with Brown's general counsel, Misha Isaak, and Emily Matasar, the governor's government accountability attorney on Jan. 15. Isaak told McCall that he interpreted state law to mean that the advocate works for the governor's office, McCall wrote in a memo the day after the meeting.
"On behalf of journalists and open government advocates across Oregon, we are deeply concerned about the allegations McCall raised in her resignation letter."
"None of this had previously been conveyed to me," McCall wrote. "In prior conversations with multiple parties, including the governor's office, it had been stated that the advocate was intended to be independent. When I had asked in spring 2018 who I would report to, the governor's office replied that I did not report to them."
Isaak told her that the independence was limited to the day-to-day operations of the office, but that "for political matters and matters of policy, the advocate worked for the governor and the governor's office is free to intercede."
Isaak also "implied" that it was McCall's job to "control what proposals were put forth to the council and, ultimately, what proposals were agreed upon by the council, and in doing that, I should be operating with the governor's office agenda in mind," McCall wrote.
"I stated my discomfort with being put in the position of advocating for an agenda which I was not free to disclose or discuss with the council," McCall wrote. "This objection was not really discussed."
Toward the end of that January meeting, Isaak told McCall that "I should be less ambitious, not move so fast, and recognize that I do not know about the politics or nuance of Oregon."
"Thus, I should 'listen' and not attempt to propose reforms about things I did not fully understand. I should, instead, rely on the governor's office to make decisions about these things. This part of the meeting felt both demeaning and condescending. Nowhere in this discussion was an acknowledgment that I am a professional, with a decade of specialized experience in politics, reform, public records, advocacy and government. It was both disrespectful and unnecessarily hostile."
Isaak then told her that he was concerned that McCall would leave the meeting and call a reporter from the Portland Tribune and "tell him that the governor's office is trying to censor me."
"This conveyed to me that I was expected to keep this meeting, including the fact that the governor's office interpreted (state law) to mean that I report to them, a secret," McCall wrote. "This expectation of secrecy made me feel uncomfortable. It felt both unethical and dishonest."
On Aug. 30, the governor appointed Isaak to the Oregon Court of Appeals, effective Nov. 1.
McCall documented a second meeting, with Matasar, on June 6, at a cafÉ in Salem.
Matasar "expressed extreme unhappiness" with an email McCall had sent in late May to the records council about the office's budget. McCall had sought feedback from the council on her concerns about the proposed budget for the office.
Matasar recommended that McCall not to "send out emails or make statements that make it look like I am 'opposed to' or 'outside' of the governor's office," McCall wrote.
McCall told Matasar that her office was "supposed to have independence and has in the past treated like we are outside," McCall wrote.
When Matasar told her she didn't like a bill that the council had proposed, and that she didn't think the council should have proposed it, McCall told her that the council was a "democratic body" that McCall did not have control over. McCall asked Matasar what she was supposed to do in a scenario where the governor didn't agree with a bill the council proposed, and Matasar said to "tell them that the bill is unacceptable."
"I expressed that it was not my intention to alienate anyone or create conflict," McCall wrote, "But that it was my impression that I was meant to act independently."
Matasar recommended McCall meet with other state government directors who "have better managed their relationships with the governor's office, especially" the head of the state's ethics commission.
A spokesman for the governor could not be immediately reached for comment after McCall provided the memos detailing the two meetings on Monday afternoon.
Earlier on Monday, the governor's office denied McCall's claims in response to her two letters. "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."
Brown, in a public statement sent out shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, said she agreed with McCall that the advocate should be "truly independent," and claimed that the allegations were a "surprise" to her and her staff. "I find the fact that this situation has reached the point where she feels the need to resign deeply regrettable," Brown said. "Had Ginger reached out to me sooner, I would have put my efforts into addressing her concerns and avoiding her resignation." Brown said she looked forward to meeting with McCall "immediately" to hear how the council would develop recommendations to make the advocate position "truly independent."
"It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the governor and promoting the cause of transparency," Brown continued. "Let me be clear, there should be no conflict."
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.
After news of McCall's resignation broke, she garnered swift support on social media.
"The Public Records Advocate is an important and necessary role in our government, and transparency is critical in any ethical administration," said State Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Clackamas, in a statement. "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, and I would like to thank her for the significant work she did for the people of Oregon."
McCall had been a "fierce advocate for transparency in Oregon government," said Rachel Alexander, vice president of the Oregon Territory chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in a statement Monday.
"On behalf of journalists and open government advocates across Oregon, we are deeply concerned about the allegations McCall raised in her resignation letter," Alexander said. "To function as intended, the office of the public records advocate must be independent from other state offices, including the governor's office."
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.
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
800 Summer St. NE
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.