Oregonians may not know where to turn when they have questions about public records or have been denied public information.
That’s why Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s public records task force has discussed creating a public records advocate position. The advocate could help train government workers in open records law and ensure the public gets access to information it has a right to know.
But if the state creates this position, where should it be housed? A legislative draft from Gov. Kate Brown’s staff would have the advocate appointed by the governor and housed in the Department of Administrative Services, which is under the governor’s executive control.
That’s a mistake. The advocate position needs independence, impartiality and a commitment to open government. Placing it under the secretary of state’s office would better ensure independence from control by the governor.
“We started with the secretary of state but that didn’t end up feeling right,” said Emily Matasar, a government accountability attorney with Brown’s office. “There are, you know, political implications there, as well. So DAS is where it ended up.”
No matter where the advocate lands — short of creating a completely new independent part of Oregon government — there will be questions about the advocate’s independence. But if the governor will be appointing the advocate, and the person will serve at the pleasure of the governor, that’s enough power over the position for the governor. Putting the advocate under the secretary of state will give the governor even more incentive to appoint a person who is thoroughly impartial.
Brown does not agree.
“The decision to house the Public Records Advocate was made after questions were raised about an appointed position by the governor being housed in another independently elected official’s office,” Chris Pair, a spokesman for Brown, said in a statement in The Portland Tribune.
Could it be that Brown is out to undercut the incoming Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who is a Republican? It could be. If nothing else, it certainly appears that way, which does nothing to reassure Oregonians that the governor is committed to impartiality.
Oregon’s open government laws are there to open up government and to hold government accountable. The advocate must be the public’s champion of those laws. The advocate has a better chance of independence if the governor has less control.