Oregon’s Public Records Czar Abruptly Resigns After Just 18 Months on the Job, Cites “Abuse of Authority”

Ginger McCall was hired to further Gov. Kate Brown's goal of making Oregon's government more transparent. She says Brown's staff "pressured" her in ways that were "unethical."

Ginger McCall

The state's first public records czar abruptly resigned this morning, 18 months after assuming her role.

Ginger McCall, the state's first-ever public records advocate, resigned in a letter that she sent today to the Public Records Advisory Council, which she chairs and which supports her work.

"Though I will no longer be serving in this role, I believe deeply in the importance of the Office of the Public Records Advocate," McCall wrote.

"This Office serves an essential role in connecting the public with the government. 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."

Read more: Memos from the Oregon records czar show the governor's lawyer tried to quash transparency.

Updated at 11:30 am:

In a separate letter to Brown, McCall was more forthcoming about the reason for her surprise resignation, highlighting her disagreements with Brown's general counsel, Misha Isaak.

Here is the key section of that letter, which WW obtained under a public records request:

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.

Brown's communications director, Chris Pair, took issue with McCall's versions of events.

"The allegations made by Ms. McCall are untrue," Pair said in a statement. "The Governor proposed the creation of the Office of the Public Records Advocate and the Public Records Advisory Council in 2017 in hopes that the Advocate and Council would indeed act independently to facilitate resolution of public records disputes and train public bodies on the public records law. 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. 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, whom Gov. Kate Brown hired last year to be the state's first public records advocate, came to Oregon in the wake of a scandal that ended the political career of former Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2015.

Her assignment was to help make state and local government more transparent by mediating disputes over public records; providing training and education about public records and leading the governor's newly-formed Public Records Advisory Council.

Oregon's Public Records Law says that, with some exceptions, all documents in the government's possession belong to Oregonians and are subject to inspection by the public, including the media.

When legislators passed the law in 1973, it was considered a model for other states but, since then, legislators have created more than 550 exemptions, each of them placing a new barrier between Oregonians and the information that belongs to them.

For months prior to Kitzhaber's resignation, which came less than two months into his fourth term, his administration stonewalled first WW and then other media's requests for emails and other documents relating to the influence-peddling of his fiancée, then first lady Cylvia Hayes.

When then-Secretary of State Kate Brown replaced Kitzhaber as governor, she pledged a new level of transparency and specifically said she would streamline access to public documents.

Like Kitzhaber's office, local and state agencies often use delaying tactics, including charging exorbitant fees, to avoid complying with the public records law.

"It was clear transparency was not a priority in the prior administration," Brown told lawmakers in November 2015. "I changed that my first day on the job and every day since."

In 2017, after winning election to serve out the rest of Kitzhaber's term, Brown sponsored Senate Bill 106, which created the office of the Public Records Advocate.

In January 2018, Brown announced she'd hired McCall, a 2009 graduate of Cornell Law School. McCall had for nearly a decade in Washington, D.C. on Freedom of Information Act issues at the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the federal Department of Labor.

"I'm proud of the progress we've made recently to enact the most substantial public records reforms of the past 40 years, and Ginger's work with the Public Records Advisory Council will ensure Oregon's commitment to transparency continues into the future," Brown said in statement announcing McCall's hire.

After becoming a member of the Oregon State Bar, McCall began her work here in April 2018.

McCall's first public report on the state of transparency in Oregon, released in November 2018, painted a gloomy picture. She wrote that fees government agencies charge are "highly discretionary," and "a perennial source of animosity, confusion, and frustration for public bodies and requesters alike."

She noted the "very large" number of exemptions and constant delays in production of documents.

"The public records law currently provides little accountability for noncompliance," McCall wrote.

But in her letter this morning, McCall said she's leaving, effective Oct. 11.

"This was not an easy decision. I have enjoyed working with you all and have loved the work I've done here," she wrote in her letter.

"It is my hope that the Council will continue to move forward ambitiously in the future, tackling important issues like fees, delays, and resources."

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