The Oregon State Capitol. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)
The state’s Public Records Advisory Council rejected Wednesday an attempt to restrict its independence. At the same time, the 12-member council said it would fight attempts to block it from proposing public records legislation.
During its Jan. 22 meeting in Salem, the council showed its support for Legislative Concept 166, which establishes the council’s authority to propose legislation and makes the public records advocate an independent member of the council. The concept is expected to become Senate Bill 1506 in the 35-day legislative session that begins Feb. 3.
Scott Winkels, a member of the council and a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, proposed measure amendments to strike language dealing with the advocate’s voting power. He also wanted the group to drop its plans to seek public records legislation.
Instead, the council voted to approve the bill as it was proposed. Members also authorized Chair Stephanie Clark and acting Public Records Advocate Todd Albert to proposed legislation. Winkels was the lone no vote.
In addition, the council decided to advertise beginning March 9 for a new public records advocate. The council expects to review applicants and hire someone in April.
‘Torpedo’ proposed bill
During Wednesday’s debate, two members of the council — Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of The Malheur Enterprise and chief of the Oregon Capital Bureau, and Steve Suo, The Oregonian’s investigations editor — raised concerns that amendments proposed by Winkels’ organization put the council in an awkward position.
“I’m uncomfortable having a council member presenting and promoting the special interest they’re paid to represent,” Zaitz said. “While it might be interesting informationally, it just strikes me as inappropriate. I’m concerned that going into a discussion of amendments that are not of the council’s doing provides, frankly, a special entree to the council that other organizations don’t appear to have.”
Suo said it was disruptive to the process to have one member to try to “torpedo” a proposed bill the council supported.
Council member Mark Landauer, executive director of Oregon Public Ports, said he didn’t view the league’s amendments as an attempt to torpedo the bill. He saw them as a difference of opinion on the council’s mission.
Winkels said the amendments were more about cleaning up “sloppy” language dealing with the council’s authority to propose legislation, a constitutional right already available to the group. He also said the league did not agree that the public records advocate should be an independent office. The advocate’s position was created in 2017 under the governor’s authority.
“If the league doesn’t feel like this is a good bill, we should be able to offer an alternative,” Winkels said.
Limiting council’s independence
During public testimony, Stayton City Councilor Jordan Ohrt said she supported more independence for the council and the advocate. Former Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall, who resigned in September 2019, also opposed the amendments. “One thing I’d point out to be wary of is that the language in the amendment says the council and ‘vet and review’ proposals by others. Having that language in there could be interpreted as limited, so that then council is not placed or positioned to propose legislation on its own,” McCall told the council.
Independence for the public records advocate and the council was particularly important because of the situation surrounding McCall’s exit. In a letter to Brown last September, McCall cast light on disagreements she had with Brown’s top attorney, Misha Isaak, over whether it was the advocate’s responsibility to be a member of the governor’s team or an independent authority.
“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,” McCall wrote.
Lawmakers created the office of the public records advocate in 2017 to increase transparency in state and local government. It also was designed to mediate disputes over public records. Brown proposed the advocate and the council as a way to increase state transparency after ascending to the governor's office when former Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned.
DISCLOSURE: Les Zaitz, a member of the Public Records Advisory Council, is editor of Salem Reporter.
Contact reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.