Electronic communication in the form of e-mail has the potential to better connect the public with its government.
Unfortunately, Oregons public meeting and record laws are written for the paper-based era of the 1970s, not the electronic medium that is fast becoming the norm of the 21st century.
And as we have recently learned, our elected officials can, through neglect or with ample knowledge aforethought, use e-mail to shield from public view the workings of our own government.
We wont stand for it. Neither should you.
While our public officials may freely choose to hide behind the letter of the law, we would like to invite them to bask in the light of the laws spirit. We are a government of the people. You are doing our business; dont hide it from us.
The situation came to light last week, illustrated by communications between members of the Baker City Council.
At least three city councilors Gary Dielman, lobbying to end prayer at city council meetings; and Nick Greear and Nancy Shark, regarding an upcoming meeting sent e-mails to mailing lists that include all of their colleagues on the council.
The law does not as yet specify whether such a communication is a meeting of the council. At present, neither Baker Citys attorney nor the state Attorney General believes that it is.
If it were, then a councilor wishing to e-mail the entire council would be required to make public notice of the meeting, and to keep minutes. Without question, that seems unwieldy.
But that doesnt mean we should so easily allow the conduct of our public business to slip from public view into some nether world of electrons and glowing screens.
Consider an e-mail from Councilor Nick Greear to the other members of the city council from June 23. Councilor Greear proposes delaying action on a piece of city business on the agenda for the councils next meeting.
He also invites his fellow councilors to a meeting between him and members of the Utility Rate Review Committee June 24.
Greears proposal solicits a response. If it received one from one or more other councilors, we would argue that a meeting of the city council was taking place via e-mail.
As for his invitation which acknowledged that only three members of the council could attend, lest it become a public meeting words cannot begin to describe the depth of our disappointment.
After a vote of the council at a previous meeting on a variation of the utility committees proposal, some members of the committee felt their contribution as an advisory board was somehow minimized.
Greear agreed to meet with them out of the public view, on arguably the most important issue facing the city and hammered out a new proposal to bring to the council. The proposal was adopted as presented at the next council meeting.
If the advice of this committee was to be held inviolate by its members or the council then the public had every right to be notified of that meeting and invited to participate.
Yes even if the letter of the law doesnt demand it. There can be a betrayal of the public trust even if a violation of the law does not occur. And, unfortunately, without reviewing every e-mail sent by this and previous councils, there is no way of knowing whether this scenario was an exception or just the tip of the iceberg.
We would like to think that the ease of e-mail temporarily blinded the council to its duty to the public.
Lets all open our eyes and bring the publics business back into plain view.
To the elected officials of Baker City, the Baker School Board, the Baker County Commission and the myriad other boards governed by Oregons public meetings law, we would like to make these modest proposals.
First, a renewed fidelity to the letter and spirit of Oregons open meeting laws. That means ample public notice in advance of every meeting of an elected or appointed board an area where e-mail could amplify compliance by enrolling a list of interested private parties to be notified of the meetings electronically. The law also requires minutes to be kept, whether it is a regularly scheduled meeting of the city council, a work session of the county commission, or meeting of an appointed volunteer committee, like the Utility Rate Review Committee. These minutes could also be shared immediately following the meeting with an e-mail list of interested parties draft minutes are a public record, available by law for the publics inspection.
Second, a concerted effort to preserve e-mail communications between members of the council, commission, board or committee in the hands of a designated and publicly-recognized custodian of record. While Oregon law may not deem e-mails between councilors a public meeting, it makes no bones about the fact that such messages are public documents. They need to be treated with the same care as the most fragile of yellowed paper documents from our county and citys earliest days. Employing the delete key is tantamount to the destruction of public property.
And third, develop a self-policing attitude that recognizes when e-mail messages are trending into territory that needs to be handled in full view of the public.
Pursuing this threefold initiative, and any further measures such boards deem necessary to adequately offer the public access to the workings of our government, will go far toward eradicating the widespread feeling that the smoky backroom, good ol boy era is still alive and well in Baker County.
Or you can sidestep the spirit of open government and hide behind the letter of the law. Trust will suffer, and so will the effectiveness of our government.
The choice, for now, is yours.