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Capital Chatter: Making records advocate independent

Without independent funding, no office or agency truly is independent because the Legislature controls the purse strings.

Oregon's first public records advocate released her final report this week. It included warnings and recommendations about the high fees that some municipalities and agencies charge the public for getting records that belong to the public.

You can read about Ginger McCall's recommendations elsewhere. I'm captivated by the weirdness of this situation.

Briefly, McCall is resigning as of Oct. 11 and will make her final public appearance in Oregon later this month at a journalism conference. She is returning to the East Coast and going to work for the federal government. In her surprise resignation, McCall cited undue influence from Gov. Kate Brown's office, which conflicted with her supposedly independent role as public records advocate.

The 2017 Legislature created the McCall's position. The legislation's wording either illustrates unforeseen consequences or deliberate sabotage by lawmakers.

That law also created the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council, which would be chaired by the public records advocate. So when the council met last month to discuss McCall's resignation, it was dealing with both personnel and policy issues affecting her — and she was the person leading the meeting. That seemed an ironic conflict of interest. I was surprised that someone else did not chair the meeting.

The legislative changes proposed by the public records advisory council this month would take care of that while granting more independence. The council, not the governor, would appoint the public records advocate and the council would elect its chairperson and vice chairperson. The governor still would appoint most voting members of the council.

Actual independence faces a tough road. Without independent funding, no office or agency truly is independent because the Legislature controls the purse strings. Besides, the Legislature always can change the laws.

In addition, the council must find someone to introduce its proposal in the 2020 Legislature or wait until the 2021 session.

House members are limited to two bills next year and senators get one each. As far as balance of power, that seems the reverse of what it should be, since there are 60 representatives and 30 senators. In addition, most committees can introduce three bills. By the way, Gov. Brown and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters each get five. Senate President Peter Courtney, the House Rules Committee and budget bills are not limited.

Nov. 22 is the deadline for submitting proposals so legislative lawyers have time to draft the bills. That means lawmakers — and lobbyists — will be busy when they return to the Capitol for Legislative Days on Nov. 18-20.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said her three Legislative Days in September included three committee hearings that lasted three hours each and 35 meetings with constituents, agency representatives and stakeholders.

Which brings us to climate change: Power and Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, chair the legislative committees expected to take up the new version of carbon cap and trade in the 2020 Legislature.

On Monday, a coalition of environmental organizations filed ballot measures to strictly cap greenhouse gas emissions and convert electric utilities to 100 percent renewable energy.

This was not a political surprise. Ballot measure campaigns are a means to maintain political momentum and put pressure on lawmakers. And they are a fallback if the Legislature does not act or if Brown subsequently does not go far enough to meet advocates' demands in imposing emission limits.

Rep. Power has been trying to dispel the notion that lawmakers next year will simply bring back HB 2020, the carbon cap and trade bill that died in the 2019 Legislature. There will be changes.

The proposed ballot measures certainly are not that legislation. Each is less than two full pages in length. HB 2020 was 100 pages.

Would climate change legislation pass on the ballot? Polling says yes, and polling says no. Support drops off when people realize the personal financial impact that changes would have on them.

Meanwhile, politics is circular. Advocates had attached an emergency clause to HB 2020, which prevented it from being referred to voters. They said that it needed to be implemented immediately and that opponents' demands for an election on it were a red herring. Now advocates have their own ballot proposals.

Drazan adds to her duties: House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has now officially appointed House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby to the Legislative Administration Committee. Drazan replaces Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, whom the House Republicans ousted last month as their caucus leader.

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.