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Public records battles continue in Salem

Two developments emerged in the public records arena last week. One would make the state’s public records advocate independent from the governor’s office — a necessary step. The other is a troubling report in The Oregonian indicating that Gov. Kate Brown’s office is claiming exemptions to time limits on releasing public records that are supposed to apply to small local government offices.

Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall, the first person appointed to the newly created position, resigned in September, saying she was pressured by Brown’s staff to push the governor’s agenda on public records policy but not reveal who directed her to do that. She also said the governor’s chief legal counsel told her she reported to him and she needed to clear potential legislation or policy proposals with the governor’s office before releasing them. McCall will leave her position this month.

The Public Records Advisory Council, appointed by the governor and which the advocate chairs, has proposed legislation for the 2020 Legislature that would make it clear the advocate is independent of the governor’s office. Under the proposal, the council would hire the advocate for a four-year term and could dismiss that person for cause. As it stands now, the council presents a list of candidates to the governor, who selects one and has the power to fire the advocate.

After McCall announced her resignation, Brown said she supported legislation to clarify the advocate’s independence, but should not introduce it herself.

Such legislation should receive favorable consideration from lawmakers next year. The next records advocate should use that newly clarified independence to keep a close eye on the governor’s office, because it appears Brown’s administration is less devoted to transparency that she promised it would be.

Brown took office after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned under the cloud of an influence-peddling scandal during which his office stonewalled multiple public records requests. Brown supported reforms of public records law that, among other things, set a 15-day deadline for agencies to release records or justify withholding them.

The law includes exemptions designed for small local governments, who lobbied lawmakers for exceptions because they didn’t have the staff to meet the 15-day rule.

Now, according to a detailed report in The Oregonian, two of that newspaper’s requests have languished for six weeks, and other news organizations are still waiting for responses to records requests after nearly three months.

Brown’s office says it is dealing with an unusually high volume of requests, qualifying for an exemption that applies if complying would be “impracticable.” The attorney general’s guidelines for the new law, however, say agencies must justify any deviation from the 15-day deadline: “Public bodies with the resources to adequately staff its public records requests are expected to do so.”

The governor has a staff of nearly 70, including six public affairs employees, but only one staffer — an attorney — handles nearly all records requests.

That’s not transparency. It’s foot-dragging.