SALEM — The Oregon Senate passed Senate Bill 500 Wednesday on a vote of 28-1. Under the legislation, the public records advocate will become an independent office, giving it separation from the Governor and political influence.
House Representative David Gomberg (D-Central Coast) acknowledged problems with the advocate’s office and believes this latest step will better insure independence and public access.
“I supported the bill in sub-committee and in Ways and Means,” Gomberg said. “It has now passed the Senate with one no vote. When the bill comes to the House, I will be the carrier and chief advocate for passage.”
By creating an independent office, the public records advocate would be granted more autonomy, rather than the position and office being under the governor’s control.
“The public’s access to government records shouldn’t be political,” said Senator Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), author of the legislation. “This bill will rebuild trust between Oregonians and their government. It will ensure more transparency and accountability in the handling of public records.”
According to a news release Wednesday from Senator Thatcher, since 2019, two public records advocates appointed by the Governor have resigned. Ginger McCall had alleged political pressure from the Governor’s office in handling public records requests. Becky Chiao also resigned after concerns arose over her objection to making the office independent from politics.
The bill has broad support from journalists, advocates, and the current public records advocate, Todd Albert.
In written testimony in support of SB 500, Albert said that making the office independent would “focus its limited resources on continuing the day-to-day work of being an impartial, consistently reliable office that has become a trusted voice in the ongoing conversation about transparency and access to information in Oregon.”
“I am grateful that the Oregon State Senate has recognized the need for an independent Public Records Advocate that can perform the core duties of mediating public records disputes and training public employees and records requesters about the letter and spirit of the public records law without having to worry about undue political interference,” Albert said. “I am looking forward to the House of Representatives offering the same stamp of approval on independence.”
The bill will now head to the House for consideration.