Oregon Legislature advances bill granting independence to public records watchdog


A bill separating Oregon's public records advocate from the governor's office is a step closer to becoming law after years of controversies.

Oregon's Public Records Advocate (PSA) was created in 2017 in response to the state's longstanding controversies over public records request delays. The state is less likely to grant public records requests than anywhere in the country, according to some independent reports. Those problems plague the Portland Police Bureau in particular, according to the city's police review board.

The office was established to help Oregonians understand public records law, train state employees on complying with them and recommend best practices to the state legislature.

An appointee of the governor and confirmed by the Oregon Senate, the Public Records Advocate works with the Public Records Advisory Council (PRAC), which includes elected officials, lawyers, and media members.

The embattled office has seen its share of controversies. In the past three years, it's seen two advocates leave over the nature of the office's independence.

The first PSA, Ginger McCall, stepped down in 2019 after a lawyer with Gov. Kate Brown's office allegedly pressured her to put politics above the office's mission. A $46,000 investigation commissioned by the governor's office concluded McCall's accusations were unfounded and drew controversy for its narrow scope.

In 2020, McCall's successor, Becky Chiao, became the second person to resign from the office over conflicts with the PRAC about her office's independence from the governor.

Senate Bill 500 would have the PSA chosen by the PRAC as a member of the executive branch and empower the office to request, support, or oppose bills in the state legislature. The bill would allow the PSA to seek administrative support from other state agencies, set fixed salaries for staff and clarify the line of succession in case of vacancies.

A similar bill, SB 1506, passed the Senate with unanimous support last year but failed to see a floor vote due to a Republican-led walkout over a cap-and-trade bill. Critics alleged it also lacked answers to some of the administrative and fiscal questions addressed in SB 500.

The proposal has the support of current PSA Todd Albert and the Oregon Society of Professional Journalists. It's sponsored in both state legislature chambers by state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and state Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie.

The bill was unanimously voted out of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means on Friday. It awaits further referral for a floor vote in the Senate.

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