It took less than two minutes Wednesday for a Senate committee to approve legislation to solidify independence for Oregon’s public records advocate and the Public Records Advisory Council.

During a Feb. 12 work session, members of the Senate Committee on General Government sent Senate Bill 1506 to the Senate floor with a recommendation that it be approved. Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, will carry the bill during Thursday morning’s debate.

Senators spent most of a work session on Monday hearing from supporters of the public records advocate and council. They told the committee both play important roles in promoting open government. 

“Since their inception in 2017 … the council and advocate have utilized their broad perspectives and collective knowledge to collect data and make recommendations on improving the application of public records law in Oregon, as well as how the council and advocate can better serve Oregonians on public records laws,” said Stephanie Clark, council chairwoman and director of the State Archives Division.

Clark and others, such as Society of Professional Journalists board member and Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick, support improving public records law in Oregon through independence for the public records advocate and the council.

Budnick pointed out that following the abrupt departure in September of former Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall, Gov. Kate Brown expressed her support for an independent advocate who was not attached to the governor’s office. McCall cited attempts to influence her work by former Brown adviser and staff member Misha Isaak among her reasons for leaving the post. 

“We don’t always agree with the governor, our members, on this stuff,” Budnick said. “But in this case, what you have is an issue of, will the advice that’s being given to the public — to local and state government officials who desperately need education, as do requesters — will that advice be neutral and independent? Will they adhere to the records law that you all passed? Or will they adhere to an elected officials interpretation of that law or partisan politics? Independence of this office is crucial to its credibility.”

Cities, counties disagree

SB 1506 removes the governor’s authority to hire and fire the public records advocate. It gives that responsibility to the Public Records Advisory Council. The legislation also allows the council to elect its chair and vice chair rather than having the advocate lead the group. It also authorizes the council to take stands on legislation, and to ask lawmakers to proposed bills on its behalf. 

Despite voting as a council to approve SB 1506’s original language, council member Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, drafted amendments to undercut provisions assuring independence for the advocate and the council. Winkels believed the council and the advocate needed to be accountable to someone.

On Feb. 10, committee members Sens. Laurie Monnes-Anderson, D-Gresham, and Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, questioned Winkels on which hat he was wearing when he submitted the amendments. The League of Oregon Cities opposes the bill. 

Winkels responded that he was wearing both hats, admitting that the situation was awkward. “It gives me no pleasure to go against my colleagues,” Winkels told the committee. 

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, pointed out that the Association of Oregon Counties, which also has a representative on the Public Records Advisory Council, supports the bill. He was curious about why cities and counties took different approaches to the legislation.

“Cities don’t operate in the same space in the statute as the counties do,” Winkels answered. “Counties don’t participate in mediation purposes and we disagree from time to time.”

Contact Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.

DISCLOSURE: Les Zaitz, editor Salem Reporter, is a member of the state Public Records Advisory Council.