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Oregon Legislature fortifies independence for state public records advocate

Oregon lawmakers approved a bill Wednesday that delegates the responsibility to hire and fire the state’s public records advocate to the 11-member council that was established to advise the position when it was created back in 2017. It effectively removes the potential for the advocate to be influenced by any elected official.

The long-awaited move to shore up independence for the public records advocate comes nearly two years after Ginger McCall, the state’s first-ever appointed records advocate, stepped down citing pressure from Gov. Kate Brown’s office to act in the governor’s interest.

The public records advocate’s job is to mediate records disputes between state and local government agencies and records requesters, provide training to public employees who act as records custodians, and act as the leader of the Public Records Advisory Council (PRAC).

Senate Bill 500 — which passed unanimously in the House and 28-1 in the Senate — deletes language in the 2017 bill that established the office that gives explicit hiring and firing authority to the governor with confirmation by the Senate.

The PRAC will now handle those duties. Although the original bill delineated a term of four years for the records advocate, the council can fire them for cause. Removal of the records advocate may still be appealed under state law.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, is a non-voting member of the PRAC and carried the bill in the house. Power said this is an important bill to protect Oregonians’ access to public records through ensuring the independence of the records advocate.

“With closures and staff reductions at many local media outlets due to corporate consolidations and disinvestment, access to Public Records is an increasingly important way that citizens can understand and examine the decision making of their public bodies,” Power said.

A similar bill was making its way through the legislature in 2020 when Republican walkouts derailed the session prematurely.

The bill gives the PRAC the ability to support and oppose legislation relating to state public records law, a point of contention between some members of the PRAC in last year’s effort to expand the council and advocate’s independence. It also requires the advocate to appoint a deputy who would assume interim duties of the advocate if they step down.

Todd Albert is Oregon’s current public records advocate. He assumed the interim role following McCall’s exit in September 2019 before being appointed to the position by Gov. Brown in November 2020.

Albert — along with most of the members of the PRAC — submitted testimony in support of SB 500.

According to Albert, SB 500 will establish a path for future advocates to effectively carry out their duties without fear of undue political influence.

“This bill provides for standing up an administratively sound state agency that has a strong internal structure and clear continuity of leadership,” Albert said. “Doing so is necessary to fully focus its limited resources on continuing the day-to-day work of being an impartial, consistently reliable office that has become a trusted voice in the ongoing conversation about transparency and access to information in Oregon.”

SB 500 now heads to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown for her approval, who in 2019 said she agreed with McCall that the records advocate needs to be “truly independent.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting