Refresher needed

By Baker City Herald June 08, 2011 04:26 pm

The Baker School Board needs a refresher course on Oregon’s Public Meetings law.

We’re convinced that the board ran afoul of the law Monday afternoon.

Specifically, the board excluded two reporters from the Baker City Herald from attending the portion of the meeting when a teacher, who has filed a grievance against the district, met with the board.

(The teacher filed the grievance after being reassigned. The Herald has requested a copy of the grievance and plans to pursue a news story about the matter. The Herald will name the teacher in the story.)

Here’s what the law says:

Whenever a quorum of a public body, such as the school board, convenes to discuss any matter under its jurisdiction, the result is a public meeting.

A quorum of the Baker School Board was present during Monday’s meeting.

In most cases, public meetings, as the name implies, are open to anybody who wants to attend.

The law does allow public bodies to meet privately, in what’s known as an executive session, to discuss certain topics.

However, members of the news media are allowed to attend executive sessions.

Journalists are not supposed to report on discussions that take place during executive sessions, but rather to use the information to guide their reporting on the matter. The idea, and it is a good one, is that public bodies should not be allowed to discuss matters of public importance in complete secrecy.

The public meetings law includes only two exceptions to the news media’s right to attend executive sessions.

One exception is when the public body meets with people who it has designated to negotiate labor contracts.

The other exception is when a public body discusses the possible expulsion of a student, or matters related to a student’s confidential medical records.

The topic during Monday’s school board meeting — the grievance — doesn’t meet either of those exceptions, said Jack Orchard, a Portland attorney who advises the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association on issues involving the state’s public meetings and public records laws.

The school board, to its credit, had intended to hear the grievance during a part of the meeting open to the public.

But the teacher asked to meet with the board in private, said Dan Van Thiel, the school district’s attorney.

That’s understandable.

But Oregon’s public meeting law supersedes the request for privacy. Moreover, the law does not entitle the school board to bar the news media from attending any part of Monday’s meeting.