Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The dysfunctional Baker School Board has compounded one recent mistake - censuring director Kyle Knight - by making another.

And this latest blunder could affect all of us, by compromising the public's ability to keep tabs on its elected officials.

Moreover, this new mistake is based on illogical reasoning, about which more later.

On Tuesday a majority of the five-member board - chair Lynne Burroughs and directors Mark Henderson and Andrew Bryan - didn't object when Dan Van Thiel, a local attorney who does legal work for the school district, recommended a policy that eviscerates the spirit of Oregon's public meetings law.

Van Thiel urged the board to avoid scheduling executive session meetings - these are closed to the public, but, with a couple of exceptions, are open to the media - in cases when the board intends to discuss what it deems confidential information.

Van Thiel said the impetus for his recommendation is the concern, expressed by Burroughs as well as Superintendent Walt Wegener, that Knight had divulged confidential information to the media.

Van Thiel urged Burroughs to cancel Tuesday's executive session, which was convened so the board could talk about an evaluation of Wegener's performance.

Burroughs said she decided to go ahead with the meeting because it had been advertised to the public.

Which goes precisely to the reason why Van Thiel's proposal to forego future executive sessions, and the board majority's acquiescence, are indefensible.

Instead of meeting together in executive session, board members, at Van Thiel's urging, intend to meet individually with Wegener or Doug Dalton, the district's chief financial officer, to discuss confidential issues.

The complete board could in theory convene in public session only when it's ready to make formal, by a public vote, the decisions directors had already reached consensus on as a result of the one-on-one meetings that happen without the public's knowledge or oversight.

This is a blatant subversion of the main purpose of Oregon's public meetings law. That purpose, as set out in 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."

The one-on-one meetings that Van Thiel recommends, which needn't be advertised because they aren't official meetings, are the antithesis of the transparent government the public meetings law envisions.

But, you might ask, what difference does this make, since executive sessions are closed to the public anyway?

The answers: In contrast to one-on-one meetings, all executive sessions must be advertised in advance, and in most cases, the media are entitled by law to attend those sessions to, in effect, represent the public and make sure the discussion doesn't stray from matters that are legitimate fodder for executive sessions. Also, the public notifications of executive sessions must state the specific subsection of the law that allows a closed session (common examples include meeting with a lawyer or discussing possible real estate transactions).

At a minimum, then, the public should be able to find out when its elected officials are meeting, and have a general notion of the subject matter, even if the public can't attend.

Yet by substituting one-on-one meetings for executive sessions, the school district makes it possible for the board to reach a consensus on some vital topic - selling a building, or approving a labor contract with teachers, for instance - without the public having any inkling that the matter was even being considered until the votes are cast.

The above scenario obviously makes a mockery of the notion, expressed in the public meetings law, that Oregon should have "an informed public aware of the deliberations" of its elected officials.

It's pretty hard for the public to be aware of unannounced deliberations which take place in private.

To be clear, it's not illegal for individual board members to meet with Wegener or Dalton. So long as less than a quorum of the board (fewer than three of the five members) isn't participating, there is no official meeting. We don't object to such conversations happening on occasion.

But the school board seems intent on making such unofficial, and secret, meetings commonplace. Certainly the Legislature, when it passed the public meetings law in 1973, did not intend that public bodies would circumvent the law by routinely deliberating not as a group but as individuals.

Which brings us back to logic. Or, more accurately, a lack of it.

We understand that Burroughs, Henderson, Bryan and Wegener don't trust Knight.

But if Knight can't be relied on to keep confidential information to himself, as his critics insist, then what difference does it make whether he is given that information in an executive session, or in a one-on-one meeting with Wegener or Dalton?

Yet the board seems to think there is a difference; and worse, a majority of the board is using that belief as grounds for shielding the public from what's happening in the school district.

We think those critics' concerns are exaggerated, in any case. We've seen no evidence that Knight has been reckless in informing the media, including the Herald, about school district issues. All else being equal, we prefer elected officials who are more inclined toward public transparency than the sort of secrecy the school board is tottering toward.

The key issue now, though, is not the continuing squabble among the board's factions. Neither those internal conflicts, nor the specious worries about Knight's trustworthiness, justify the board deliberating toward decisions in what amounts to a locked vault, to which the public has no key.