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Keeping the public informed
Oregon’s Public Meetings Law is designed to ensure elected officials conduct their business, which is to say our business, in public forums.
The law applies to city, county and state agencies, but not to federal agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM. We note this distinction by way of setting the stage for a recent situation in which two of the three Baker County commissioners, Mark Bennett and Fred Warner Jr., met with Forest Service officials to get an update on the planned revisions of management plans for the three national forests in the Blue Mountains.
With a three-person board it takes just two to make a quorum. But the presence of a quorum doesn’t necessarily mean the gathering is a public meeting — one which the board must publicly announce in advance and which the public is entitled to attend.
We don’t believe the Jan. 21 Forest Service meeting that Bennett and Warner attended qualifies as a public meeting. Nor does Judson Randall, president of Open Oregon, a charitable organization that strives to make sure local and state agencies comply with the state’s public meetings and publics records laws.
The key distinction, Randall said, is the purpose of a meeting. If elected officials meet for the purpose of either deliberating toward a decision, or making a decision, it’s a public meeting.
But if elected officials are getting information on a topic, as was the case with the Jan. 21 meeting, the public meetings law doesn’t apply.
Moreover, the topic of the meeting — the forest management plans — is outside the county commission’s jurisdiction. Bennett and Warner couldn’t deliberate toward a decision because they have no decision to make on the matter.
Those two also attended the BLM’s sage grouse open house in Baker City on Jan. 9. As with Jan. 21 Forest Service meeting, the commissioners were present not to discuss county business but rather to educate themselves about federal projects that are important to the county’s future.
That said, elected officials have an obligation to their constituents to publicly announce when they expect that a quorum will be present, even if a public meeting doesn’t result.
Bennett said he tries to make such announcements at the end of county commission meetings.
We encourage all local public officials to follow suit. In a small town it’s not always possible, of course, to know in advance when a quorum might attend the same event. But when officials do know that’s likely, they should make sure the public does as well.