Official wants independence for new Oregon transparency role

In this undated photo released by Oregon Secretary of State show Ginger McCall, the first public records advocate for the State of Oregon. McCall announced her resignation Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, saying Gov. Kate Brown's office abused its authority and wanted her to secretly work for the governor while giving the impression she was working in the public interest.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon official who is resigning her job aimed at making government more transparent is urging her successors to defend the independence of the new office in the face of attempted influence by the governor's office.

Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall, who announced her resignation on Monday, said staff from Democratic Gov. Kate Brown's office tried to pressure her into secretly representing the governor's interests.

McCall's memo to her successors also describes funding issues and political maneuvering which resulted in legislation proposed by a public records advisory council that she leads being killed.

Future advocates, "armed with the knowledge of these events, will be better prepared to be able to manage the politics inherent to this position and to zealously defend the independence of this office," McCall wrote.

McCall was selected in 2018 to be Oregon's first-ever public records advocate, responsible for building an infrastructure to resolve open-records disputes and provide training on Oregon's open records laws.

She had previously worked both sides of open records clashes, with the U.S. Department of Labor defending against Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits, and with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that uses FOIA lawsuits to obtain information from the government about surveillance and privacy policy.

Brown said late Monday she was surprised by McCall's allegations and regrets that she resigned. The governor attributed the problems to her staffers being conflicted between the goals of serving her and promoting the cause of transparency.

"The continued reform of public records law in Oregon hinges on the success of the Public Records Advocate and the Public Records Council," Brown said.

But Lee Van der Voo, who served on the public records advisory council, said McCall's departure calls into question Brown's commitment to accountability.

"Her resignation signals that significant transparency reforms are in danger of being yet another dog-and-pony show," Van der Voo told Willamette Week newspaper.

Given the lack of clarity of her autonomy, McCall on June 11 asked Andrew Foltz, a senior assistant attorney general, for an opinion. McCall's position was created by the Legislature in 2017 at Brown's request.

In a draft memo and an email, Foltz replied that the governor probably could not force McCall to hide the fact that she was receiving instructions from Brown's office. Foltz's messages, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press through a public records request, said the advocate reports to the governor but that there is nothing in the legislation that says the governor's office exercises day-to-day supervision.

Nor does the governor have the authority to preview or edit the advocate's reports, Foltz wrote.

That issue came to a head after the Public Records Advisory Council, which McCall leads, published a report in November that described roadblocks to public records access. Brown's top lawyer, Misha Isaak, told McCall to send future reports to the governor's office first, McCall said.

Isaak also said he was concerned she would tell reporters that the governor's office was trying to censor her, McCall said in a memo of the Jan. 15 meeting, saying the expectation of secrecy "felt both unethical and dishonest."

Rep. Bill Post, a Republican from the Salem suburb of Keizer, demanded on Tuesday that Brown rescind her recent appointment of Isaak to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

"It is in the best interest for 'transparency' to not go forward," Post wrote Brown.

He said the public records advocate should be under the secretary of state or a stand-alone office.

The governor's office does not disagree with Foltz's opinion, Brown's spokeswoman, Kate Kondayen, said Tuesday.

Brown said she wants to meet with McCoy to develop recommendations to the Legislature to create a truly independent position.

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