SALEM — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown came under fire Monday from the state’s Republican Party for a proposal to house a proposed public records advocate at the Department of Administrative Services.
In previous proposals, the position was to be part of the Secretary of State’s Office. Republicans claim Brown, a Democrat, now wants to move the position into a department controlled by the governor now that the Secretary of State’s Office is about to be taken over by Dennis Richardson, a Republican.
“Such maneuvers by Gov. Brown serve to damage public trust,” ORP Chairman Bill Currier said in a statement.
He claimed that the move would undercut Richardson’s oversight responsibilities.
“The secretary of state in Oregon exists in large part to restore and maintain high public confidence, but needs all the tools possible to do this. Voters elected Dennis Richardson to restore balance and be this watchdog in order to guarantee that the rest of the government run by the governor is telling Oregonians the truth.”
Under the arrangement proposed in the governor’s legislative concept, the advocate would be appointed to a four-year term by the governor and be confirmed by the Oregon Senate.
The office of the advocate would be located in the office of the Department of Administrative Services, which would also provide administrative support.
One of the main responsibilities of the advocate would be mediating disputes between people requesting public records and state agencies.
The Governor’s Office put the specific idea forward at a Dec. 15 meeting of the Attorney General’s Public Records Law Reform Task Force.
The Governor’s Office considered locating the advocate in the Secretary of State’s Office, according to a recording of the meeting, during which Emily Matasar, a government accountability attorney, responded to questions about the location of the advocate.
“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 response to questions during the Dec. 15 Task Force meeting, Matasar said “we struggled a bit with where to house it, and also to maintain independence.”
She said that the position being subject to Senate confirmation was one way the role could be kept independent under the proposal.
“It serves a statewide function, so we just, it made sense to us to put it in DAS,” Matasar said. “We started with the secretary of state but that didn’t end up feeling like, there’s political, you know, implications there as well, so DAS is where it ended up.”
Come January, the Secretary of State’s Office is the only executive state office that will be held by a Republican. Richardson, a former gubernatorial candidate and state legislator from Central Point, will be the first Republican in the office since 1985.
The Secretary of State’s Office voiced criticism of Brown’s proposal in early December, noting potential crossover between the duties of the advocate and archivist and other issues to consider in the draft legislation.
In a Dec. 5 letter to Ben Souede and Matasar, attorneys for Brown, Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins voiced criticism of the proposal.
Atkins explained that there may be some overlap, although inadvertent, between the duties of the proposed advocate and the State Archivist, who is located in the Secretary of State’s Office.
Atkins noted that the proposed law would give the advocate responsibility over records management and retention issues that were duties of the archivist.
“Please be assured that the Archivist would work closely in collaboration with the Advocate on matters related to public records,” Atkins wrote. “However, given the long-standing expertise of the Archivist over the area of management and retention of records, we think it most appropriate to leave those responsibilities where they currently reside in existing law.”
Atkins said the two employees could make a “useful team to promote transparency.”
Atkins also sought confirmation of her understanding of the relationship between the Department of Administrative Services and the Advocate, saying that her office was concerned that “having DAS run the Advocate’s office may not lead to useful results.”
She pointed out that DAS “struggles at times with fulfilling public records requests and the Advocate may be called into service mediating disputes with DAS.”
The legislative concept says that DAS would furnish office facilities and provide administrative support to the public records advocate.