Oregon public records advocate resigns after conflict with board over independence

Becky Chiao

Oregon’s top transparency official resigned Tuesday, after clashing with the state board she chairs over its efforts to make her office more independent from the governor.

In a resignation letter obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, Public Records Advocate Becky Chiao wrote that “a disagreement has arisen between me and at least one esteemed member of the Public Records Advisory Council regarding my actions. Rather than distract the group with a debate about this disagreement, after serious soul searching, I agree that my continued service in this role is not in the public interest.”

She appeared to be referring to a letter that council member and Malheur Enterprise and Salem Reporter editor and publisher Les Zaitz wrote to her on Friday, urging Chiao to withdraw her name from consideration by the state Senate, which was originally scheduled to vote on her confirmation earlier this month.

Gov. Kate Brown in August appointed Chiao to the job, subject to Senate confirmation. The council’s efforts before and after her appointment to get a bill passed to end the governor’s role hiring and firing the advocate were at the root of Chiao’s and the council’s disagreements. Brown supports shifting oversight of the advocate to the council.

The state Senate voted unanimously earlier this year to do so. But the House did not get a chance to vote on the bill due a Republican walkout, so the change did not take place.

In his letter critiquing Chiao’s leadership, Zaitz cited her interactions with the public records council at its September 17 meeting, during which she initially refused the council’s directive to write a letter to the governor seeking continued funding for her office. She also suggested she would try to get her own bill introduced in the 2021 legislative session because she disagreed with the council’s advocate independence plan.

Chiao ultimately wrote the funding letter to the governor but only after the council directed her to do so in her role as council chair, not as the advocate. In a memorandum to the council, Chiao said the advocate’s ties to the governor make the position more powerful. She objected to the public records council’s plan to take over responsibility for overseeing the advocate.

In the letter to Chiao, Zaitz wrote that “I know from working on public records reform in Oregon for decades that this is hard work. Making progress requires consensus and collaboration. The clear divide between the (council) and you, in my opinion is irreparable and imperils material progress.”

In the end, Chiao also said she concluded the disagreements would interfere with transparency work. Chiao wrote that the advocate’s role “is to work to resolve conflicts between the government and those seeking public records, not to become the subject of additional conflict.” Chiao declined to comment Tuesday.

Oregon’s public records advocate is tasked with helping resolve conflicts between members of the public and government workers over public records requests. The advocate also trains government workers on the state’s public records law, works with the public records council to prepare reports on how agencies are complying with the records law and issues recommendations to improve public records access.

The previous advocate, Ginger McCall, resigned in 2019 and accused the governor’s administration of pressuring her to advance the administration’s positions on public records law even when she thought it not the best pathway to transparency.

NOTE: This story is published with the permission of The Oregonian as part of a collaborative of news organizations in Oregon sharing news content. Malheur Enterprise is part of the arrangement.

Editor’s note: Les Zaitz, editor of Malheur Enterprise, was not involved in writing or editing this article.