Oregon's Public Records Advocate Tenders Surprise Resignation
When Ginger McCall was tapped as Oregon’s first-ever public records advocate in early 2018, she said the position was her “dream job.”
Less than a year and a half later, McCall is leaving the post, and describing adversarial conditions at the hands of Gov. Kate Brown’s staff.
In an abrupt move, McCall gave notice Monday morning she was resigning her position next month. McCall made the announcement in a letter to Brown’s office that included allegations she was pressured by Brown’s general counsel, Misha Isaak, to act in the governor’s interest. Those pressures jeopardized her role as an impartial arbiter and ambassador for public records in the state, McCall said.
“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,” McCall wrote. “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 ... Meetings with the Governor’s General Counsel and staff have made it clear, however, that the Governor’s staff do not share that view.”
McCall went on to describe pressure to “represent the Governor’s Office’s interest” in her work leading the state’s Public Records Advisory Council. “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…”
[Ginger McCall spoke with the Jefferson Exchange last month about her efforts on behalf of open access to public records.]
Brown’s office flatly denied the allegations Monday.
“The allegations made by Ms. McCall are untrue,” Brown spokesman Chris Pair wrote in an email Monday morning.
But in a statement issued after 5 p.m., after additional details about McCall's claims had come to light, Brown had a softer take.
"It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the Governor and promoting the cause of transparency," the statement said in part. "Let me be clear, there should be no conflict."
Brown first proposed the creation of McCall’s position, along with the advisory council she leads. The council scrutinizes how public agencies respond to requests under Oregon’s public records law, and makes recommendations for improvements.
Brown supported that structure “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,” Pair wrote.
In creating the role of public records advocate in 2017, the state Legislature gave the governor authority over the position. Brown said Monday she now agrees that the position should be "truly independent," though it is not clear what exactly that would look like.
McCall’s resignation was first reported by Willamette Week.
The decision to quit appears to have roots in two meetings McCall had with Governor's Office staff this year — one Jan. 15 and the other June 6. Both revolved, at least in part, around a bill that the Public Records Advisory Council had put forward in this year's Legislative session.
On Monday, McCall released memos she'd written that described what happened in both meetings.
In the first, McCall met with Isaak and another staffer for Brown, Emily Matasar. The Public Records Advisory Council had recently released a report, and the Governor's Office had asked McCall to give it a chance to respond to future reports.
In the January meeting, however, McCall said the Governor's Office's demands grew broader. She said Isaak told her that he was her direct supervisor, whereas she had always considered her position independent.
According to McCall, Isaak then took issue with House Bill 2431, which the advisory council had put forward for the upcoming legislative session. The bill would have required state agencies to report certain data regarding public records each year.
But McCall said Isaak felt the bill was flawed because it didn't force local governments to report the same details.
"Misha conveyed to me that by doing that the Council had put the Governor in an awkward position of having to potentially oppose bills herself instead of relying on stakeholders and lobbyists for cities, counties, and special districts to oppose the bills," McCall wrote in her memo, which she said was written the day after the meeting.
She added: "He implied that it was my 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."
Toward the end of the meeting, McCall wrote, Isaak asked her to be "less ambitious, not move so fast, and recognize that I do not know about the politics or nuance of Oregon."
The bill did not ultimately pass.
The second meeting took place June 6, at a coffee shop near the Capitol. On that day, McCall said Matasar, the governor's government accountability attorney, took her to task for an email McCall had sent to the Public Records Advisory Council regarding the group's budget.
"She stated that the email made it look like I was trying to get others to lobby the Governor’s office on behalf of my office and that several unnamed people from the Council had forwarded it to her," McCall wrote. "She said that others in her office had been unhappy with this, including Misha [Isaak] and that I was 'going to' do two things immediately: send out an email telling the PRAC that I was mistaken about the budget and add her to the PRAC email list."
McCall said Matasar cautioned her against sending such emails, and that the conversation once again drifted back to the transparency bill Brown's office opposed. She said Matasar told her to stymie similar bills in the future.
"I once again asked what role it was that the Governor’s office thought I should have," McCall wrote. "I then asked her directly if it was her opinion that I needed to receive approval before Council proposals or reports. She demurred on this, stating that we apparently needed to have more meetings with Misha, etc. about my role."
By that point, McCall wrote, she was uncomfortable meeting with Isaak, feeling that he had treated her "disrespectfully and in a manner I found sexist and demeaning."
In a public statement Monday, McCall revealed she would be moving to Washington, D.C., for a job as an attorney in the federal government. Her deputy, Todd Albert, will fill her role until a permanent replacement is appointed.
In her own statement, Brown said she and her chief of staff, Nik Blosser, were caught off guard by McCall's allegations.
"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."
McCall's departure amounts to an awkward situation for a governor who came into office vowing unprecedented transparency and a focus on bolstering public records laws.
“Throughout my 24 years in public service, I have also sought to promote transparency and trust in government, working to build confidence that our public dollars are spent wisely,” Brown said in 2015, as she was sworn into the governor’s office after the resignation of former Gov. John Kitzhaber. “As governor, this will not change.”
McCall, who had worked as both an advocate for open records and as a government employee for the U.S. Department of Labor, was tapped for the newly created public records advocate position in January 2018. She began in late April of that year.
Beyond leading the Public Records Advisory Council, the role includes mediating disputes between public agencies and those who request public records, as well as conducting training about Oregon’s public records law. Between April and November of last year, McCall handled 90 requests for assistance and conducted training for nearly 1,300 people, according to a report by the advisory council.
But she'd apparently grown fed up with the role. While writing that she holds Brown "in great esteem and greatly admire the spirit demonstrated in the creation of the Public Records Advocate," McCall said she doesn't believe her vision of the job can be squared with the approach by Brown's office.
Isaak, the lawyer whom McCall has accused of applying pressure on her work, won't be around for long. Brown appointed him to a judgeship on the Oregon Court of Appeals on Aug. 30.
Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.