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Capital Chatter: Transparency flap is a doozy

Public records advocate Ginger McCall was not just a breath of fresh air; she was a storm. And Brown's staff apparently did not like that change in the political climate.

Friday afternoon's meeting of the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council should be a doozy.

The agenda includes: "Review circumstances of Advocate's resignation — Advocate will explain for the record what occurred -Advocate will provide relevant documentation — Advocate will provide her recommendations for remedies."

That advocate is Ginger McCall, who on Monday jolted the Oregon political establishment by announcing that pressure from the governor's staff conflicted with her independent role and made her job untenable. McCall is resigning as of Oct. 11, taking a job with the federal government.

She was hired last year after Gov. Kate Brown and lawmakers promised more transparency in state government following the ethics allegations that led to Gov. John Kitzhaber's resignation.

McCall was not just a breath of fresh air; she was a storm. And Brown's staff apparently did not like that change in the political climate.

Although Brown has lauded her administration's transparency, journalists have not seen it that way. It now appears Brown's staff objected to McCall's pursuing public records reforms that exceeded what the governor wanted and which, supposedly, did not take into account the nuances of Oregon politics.

Legislators, members of the public records council, journalists and probably the public had the impression that the public records advocate would be independent from the political pressures of state government. The council's first report, released last fall, showed that McCall — finally, someone! — recognized how agencies thwarted disclosure of public records (usually while proclaiming transparency as an agency virtue).

That did not go over well with the governor's staff and, as this week's news coverage suggests, possibly with the governor herself. McCall was cautioned — as I interpret it — to "be a team player" and to advance the governor's interests over what McCall believed should be done.

McCall now says Oregonians should be deeply troubled about secret influence being exerted over a supposedly independent office. Indeed, this week's events were an unfolding lesson in the value of actual transparency.

When word of McCall's resignation broke Monday morning, the governor's spokesman initially claimed her allegations were untrue and that the Legislature had not been included to make the Office of the Public Records Advocate independent of the governor.

Except that wasn't the case at all, as a review of legislative history and McCall's own meeting notes quickly made clear. Living up to her role, McCall released her notes and related documents in response to public records requests.

And so, sortly after 5 p.m. Monday, the governor's office issued a press release headlined, "Governor Brown: 'The Public Records Advocate Should Be Truly Independent'"

The first part of Brown's statement read: "The allegations made today by Ginger are a surprise to both me and my Chief of Staff [Nik Blosser]. I find the fact that this situation has reached the point where she feels the need to resign deeply regrettable. Had Ginger reached out to me sooner, I would have put my efforts into addressing her concerns and avoiding her resignation."

That statement is shocking on several levels. First, it comes across as "victim blaming." As soon as I read the press release, my mind flashed back to the similar tone employed by unenlightened corporate executives early in the #MeToo movement: "Should have told us sooner. If only you had … ."

But that is not what happens in traumatic situations, which, I would argue, include learning that the open government job you had moved across the country to take was in fact a façade.

Furthermore, as I have oft-emphasized, the governor is CEO of state government. It is the CEO's responsibility to create an environment in which people feel safe reporting concerns.

The best CEOs not only welcome but encourage dissenting opinions; indeed, there is a prominent and respected place for dissenters within the boss' inner circle.

Whether it is Brown herself or her key staff, her administration comes across as tolerating no dissent — certainly nothing that could make her look bad. That is not unusual among politicians. (Given this week's national news, President Donald Trump comes to mind.)

As an example, when Brown released new initiatives and proposals during last year's re-election campaign, I was struck by how much space was devoted to what she supposedly already had accomplished instead of jumping into what was new, and needed next. Similarly, I've been struck by how much time state officials spend praising the governor's leadership, even during such benign events as a media briefing on wildfire preparations.

I admit I have my own biases. I'm of the belief that if you really are good at something, it will be self-evident. In fact, you should be suspicious of sycophants, who do seem to populate the Oregon Capitol.

Brown's statement Monday evening was ominous in another way. McCall had wanted to discuss her concerns when meeting with the governor in May. Instead, Brown's general counsel, Misha Isaak, also was there. He was a key player in exerting pressure on McCall, telling her that her office was not independent and she should not issue reports until the governor's office had reviewed them.

After throwing McCall under the management bus in Monday's press release, Brown did the same to her own staff: "It appears this is a situation where staff were conflicted between the goals of serving the Governor and promoting the cause of transparency. Let me be clear, there should be no conflict."

However, Brown did not add, "Transparency always comes first." Neither did she emphasize that serving the governor meant being transparent. Nor at any point in the statement did Brown suggest she might have fallen short in her executive leadership.

As for Isaak, Brown recently appointed him to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, is among those who this week urged Brown to rescind that judicial appointment. On Thursday, Post told me he had yet to hear back from the governor.

As for Brown, this turmoil likely will have little effect on her standing among Oregonians, whose views of her are highly partisan. Democrats like her; Republicans don't. In fact, polls suggest her negative rankings among Republicans are similar to Trump's among Democrats. This summer, for the first time, her overall negative ratings among Oregonians exceeded her positives.

As for Friday's meeting of the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council, the agenda and 41 related documents are posted onlinefor public perusal.

Long live transparency!

But first it has to start.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.