SALEM, Ore. — Ginger McCall wasn’t afraid to name names in her resignation letter made public this week.
“When I accepted this job,” wrote Oregon’s first (and now former) public records advocate Monday in a letter to Gov. Kate Brown. “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. Meetings with the Governor’s General Counsel and staff have made it clear, however, the Governor’s staff do not share that view.”
McCall later wrote she was not only pressured by the governor’s general counsel, Misha Isaak, to take the governor’s side on public records issues, but that she has also “been told that I should represent these interests while not telling anyone that I am doing so.”
So the woman brought on 18 months ago to make Oregon state and local governments more transparent has quit because she says that same government tried to force her to be less transparent.
How did we get here?
A DIFFERENT RESIGNATION
To answer that, we need to go back to Feb. 13, 2015. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped down amid an influence-peddling controversy involving his then-fiancee Cylvia Hayes. Hayes was accused of using her influence as an energy-related consultant to win lucrative contracts and shape state policy. Kate Brown was Secretary of State at the time and next-in-line to the Governor’s Mansion when Kitzhaber officially stepped down five days later.
GOVERNMENT ETHICS REFORM
Four months after taking over for Kitzhaber, Governor Brown ushered in a series of ethics reform bills, one of which called for an audit of state agencies’ handling of public records.
“Public records are a vital mechanism of accountability for the public and access to these records must be honored and protected,” Brown said on June 12, 2015.
TROUBLE IN SALEM
It turns out, the audit was needed.
Five months after those bills were passed, on Nov. 17, 2015, the audit revealed rampant failures on the part of state agencies to both track and respond to more complicated public records requests. While the audit found agencies handled simple requests just fine, they often needed guidance when it came to blocking requests (there are more than 400 exemptions listed under Oregon state law).
BRINGING IN REINFORCEMENTS
More than a year after the results of the audit were released, Gov. Brown appointed former Department of Labor Attorney Ginger McCall to be Oregon’s first public records advocate on Jan. 4, 2018. Her main job was to mediate disputes between the public and the government over which public records should be released or kept confidential. She only served in the role for 18 months.
“I HAVE RECEIVED MEANINGFUL PRESSURE…”
McCall’s resignation on Sept. 9, immediately drew criticism to Gov. Brown who quickly released her own statement on Monday calling the situation “deeply regrettable” while also throwing Isaak, her general counsel, under the bus.
“It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the governor and promoting the cause of transparency ... Let me be clear. There should be no conflict," she wrote.
Gov. Brown nominated Isaak for a seat on the Oregon Court of Appeals on August 30, despite critics’ concerns that he lacks necessary experience because he has never served as a judge. He is expected to assume the role on Nov. 1. This will make Isaak the third aide of Gov. Brown to assume a judgeship, including former general counsel Ben Souede and former public safety adviser Heidi Moawad.