Home Opinion Editorials Putting public back in meetings law
Putting public back in meetings law
Government officials, both elected and appointed, should be reminded occasionally about the purpose of Oregon’s public meetings law.
We quote here from ORS 192.620: “The Oregon form of government requires an informed public aware of the deliberations and decisions of governing bodies and the information upon which such decisions were made. It is the intent of (the statute) that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”
It’s better still when the reminder about the law comes from a judge.
We were pleased, then, by a recent ruling from Coos County Circuit Court Judge Michael Gillespie.
Gillespie decided that Lane County Commissioners Rob Handy and Pete Sorenson violated the public meetings law by meeting privately with two of the three other commissioners to discuss how they would vote on a proposal to allow commissioners to hire personal assistants.
The public meetings law explicitly forbids a quorum of any public body from meeting in private to discuss issues over which it has authority.
Gillespie’s ruling was in a lawsuit filed by a former Lane County Commissioner and a Eugene businessman, who accused Handy and Sorenson of violating the public meetings law.
The judge concluded that because four of the five current commissioners had deliberated about their votes outside a public meeting (commissioners voted during that meeting to hire assistants), they had indeed run afoul of the law.
A question remains, though: Did the commissioners violate the letter of the public meetings law, or only its spirit?
Duane Bosworth, a Portland attorney who’s well-versed in that law, told a reporter for the (Eugene) Register-Guard that the Lane County case seems to be the latter.
Bosworth pointed out, and Judge Gillespie acknowledged, that there was no evidence that any three commissioners ever met at the same time to discuss hiring assistants.
In other words, there’s no proof a quorum of the commission was ever together to talk about that topic.
But Gillespie argued in his ruling that because a quorum of commissioners did discuss the matter in private they broke the law, even though they had multiple discussions rather than a single meeting with a quorum present.
“All involved knew that a quorum of the board was working toward a final decision outside of the public meeting context,” Gillespie wrote.
And that, the judge concluded, is illegal.
“In order to keep that discussion confidential, they meet in groups of less than a quorum,” he told The Register-Guard. “That may well be a loophole in Oregon statute.”
We hope Gillespie’s ruling is the first step in permanently closing that loophole.
The purpose of the public meetings law, as expressed in the excerpt we quoted above, is simple.
Public officials — who act on our behalf, and who spend our money — must do their work in public forums that are open to anyone who wants to watch.
Obviously the law would be meaningless if officials could do all their deliberating in private, then convene in the public arena only for the purpose of officially casting the votes they had already agreed on.
That’s why the law entitles the public to watch both the deliberations and the decisions of public bodies.
To ensure the public can do so, the law prohibits the sort of private deal-making, or vote-counting, exemplified in the Lane County case.
That case also shows, Gillespie’s ruling notwithstanding, that officials can easily circumvent the law by means of the loophole Bosworth identified.
It’s no great feat, after all, for a commissioner to have separate meetings with two of his colleagues rather than a single meeting with both.
Yet the purpose and the result in both cases, as Gillespie rightly noted, is the same — to make a decision outside the public’s purview.
We urge Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, who recently forwarded to the Legislature a proposed overhaul of the state’s public records law, to focus now on bolstering its twin, the public meetings law.
The fix is pretty simple — delete the word “quorum” from the section that prohibits public officials from privately discussing policy issues among themselves.