We don’t mind that the Baker City Council wants to discuss certain topics without feeling pressured to make a decision.
Although the only pressure, so far as we can tell, would be self-imposed.
Councilors voted last week to start scheduling occasional “work sessions” before regular meetings. The idea, as suggested by City Manager Fred Warner Jr., is that councilors can have an informal discussion of an issue during a work session and ask questions of city staff, then make a decision on that issue, if necessary, during a later regular meeting.
That’s reasonable. We’re not convinced, though, that it’s necessary.
The Council, rather than designate a work session for a specific issue, could simply include that issue on the regular meeting agenda but note that the matter is for discussion only, with no action to be taken. The Council has done just that in many previous meetings. Merely including any topic on a regular meeting agenda doesn’t mean councilors have any obligation to take a vote on that topic.
The most important thing for city residents to understand is that they’re legally entitled to attend, whether the gathering is described as a work session or a regular meeting.
Warner said the Council probably wouldn’t accept public comments during work sessions. This is legally justified, as Oregon’s Public Meetings Law requires only that city councils and other public bodies have open meetings, not that they also take public comments.
The basic idea, as Warner outlined, is that councilors will use work sessions to discuss complex issues with city staff, then actually make a decision, after soliciting public comments, during a later regular meeting.
That scenario is acceptable so long as the Council follows through and ensures that residents have a chance to express their opinions before their elected representatives take a vote. This is particularly vital because the topics that are likely to prompt work sessions — the proposed chronic disorderly property ordinance, for instance — are also likely to be the most controversial.
Otherwise the Council risks turning the term “work session” into a synonym for “back room deal.”