One of the steps that the state of Oregon has taken in recent years to improve the transparency of government is to authorize the creation of a public records advocate. The advocate's primary job will be to mediate disputes between citizens who want access to public records and the state agencies that hold those records.
The idea for the advocate's position came from Gov. Kate Brown, who has made transparency in state government one of her priorities — but her record on this point thus far, frankly, has been mixed.
There are plenty of ways for this experiment to go awry. But establishing the public record advocate position still strikes us as an experiment worth trying, especially in a state that consistently has limited access to public records, one set of records at a time over the last four or five decades.
It probably goes without saying that one of the keys to the success of the advocate's position will be the person who is selected to serve as the first advocate. And, although it's too early to tell for sure, it would appear that Brown has chosen well: She nominated (and the state Senate confirmed) Ginger McCall, an attorney who has worked on government transparency issues since the start of her legal career. McCall, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor, is scheduled to start her new job on April 25.
The Oregonian newspaper ran a question-and-answer feature with McCall over the weekend, and some of the points she made are worth passing along — especially as we continue to observe Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of the idea that government works best when it operates in public view.
One reason McCall appears to be an excellent choice for the position is that her resume includes stints on both sides of the public records divide: She has worked for organizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, that have made hay with timely and smart records requests. But her current job at the Department of Labor involves work in responding to records requests, including overly broad requests such as the one seeking every single email received and sent by the Secretary of Labor. So she comes into the job already armed with an understanding of the frustrations and misunderstandings that can go along with records requests.
The key frustrations for people or organizations seeking public records often revolve around lengthy delays in receiving the information requested: "Those delays of months or years can effectively make it impossible for you to fulfill that original goal you had when you made that request," McCall told The Oregonian. But the 2017 Legislature approved a measure to clarify the length of time that agencies have to respond to requests, so part of McCall's new job will be to educate government workers about that.
She also noted that the fees agencies sometimes charge for records can be a source of frustration, as well as the exemptions (more than 500 of them in Oregon law) that remove certain sets of records from public view. "We used to joke there was a 'this will embarrass us' exemption," she said. Work is just beginning to identify and remove those exemptions wherever possible.
McCall made another point that's worth remembering, and not just during Sunshine Week: Some people, she said, don't even know they have the right to request public documents. But this is not a right that belongs solely to journalists or organizations: Any citizen can make such a request. McCall believes that part of her job is not only to get that point across, but to teach members of the public how to frame a request in such a way that it gets a suitable response.
Here's hoping McCall can make the most of this promising experiment toward more transparent government. (mm)