Public can't hear lawmakers from behind closed doors

February 11, 2003 11:00 pm

Sen. Ted Ferrioli, please speak up.

Sen. David Nelson, please speak up.

Because whatever new organ of government you devise to give rural Oregon a louder voice in Salem, it will be for naught if your chamber of the legislature succeeds, even for a moment, in locking out all of Oregon.

On Tuesday, all 30 members of the Oregon Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike, gathered in a room in the Capitol that is off-limits to the public and the media.

If Ferrioli or Nelson protested this closed-door "joint caucus," we can't know. As soon as members of the media insisted that a meeting of the full Senate should be open to the public, Senate leadership ordered reporters who had entered the room to get out — and then adjourned the meeting.

Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown said the meeting was called as a convenience to a state economist and a legislative revenue officer. The pair could make one presentation to a joint caucus instead of two to separate Democratic and Republican gatherings, she explained.

Calling a meeting open to the public would have taken too much time, she added.

Baloney. The public is not an inconvenience.

Sadly, this kind of behavior is par for the course in Salem.

Not in their stump speeches, but in their actions, Oregon lawmakers repeatedly show that real Oregonians are an inconvenience to government.

Tuesday's secret meeting of the Senate is just the latest example of lawmakers attempting to duck public scrutiny of how they conduct the public's business.

Before this session convened, editors of nearly all of Oregon's daily newspapers, including the Baker City Herald, signed off on a letter encouraging legislative leaders to open their caucuses to the public.

To date, only Senate Democrats allow reporters into caucuses. Senate Republicans meet in secret, as do both parties in the House.

It remains the position of this newspaper that legislative caucuses — meetings where members of one party, or in the case of the Senate's Tuesday tomfoolery, both, meet to hash out strategy — should be open to the public.

A closed caucus affords much opportunity for wheeling, dealing and arm-twisting; the public deserves to know how their elected representatives are representing them in these secret sessions.

Because a lawmaker's representation of the public is not confined to voting records and committee testimony, but how lawmakers conduct themselves politically.

The public and the media have the right to at least listen to how our representative government is being conducted.

Sen. Ferrioli, Sen. Nelson, please speak up. It's hard to hear you from behind closed doors.