The Baker City Council violated Oregon’s Public Meetings Law Tuesday night when it elected a mayor by means of secret ballots.

The law requires that all votes by public bodies with fewer than 26 members — the Baker City Council has seven members — be conducted in public, and that each member’s vote be announced.

The use of secret ballots was the subject of the first state Attorney General’s opinion regarding the Public Meetings Law. That opinion was issued on Oct. 11, 1974, the year after the law took effect. The opinion expressly prohibits the use of secret ballots.

Tuesday night the Council elected Loran Joseph as mayor by a 5-2 vote. Each councilor handed a paper ballot to City Recorder Julie Smith. She tallied the ballots and announced that Joseph had received four votes, and Mike Downing three votes. She later corrected the result, to 5-2, after noticing that she had tallied the wrong ballot from Councilor Arvid Andersen. The vote violated the law not because councilors used ballots — that’s allowed — but because Smith didn’t say how each councilor had voted.

Smith called the Herald Thursday afternoon with that information, and it’s included in a story on Page 1A of today’s issue.

The Council should, however, also make its choice of Joseph official by conducting a legal, public vote. That’s what councilors did in January 2007 when they mistakenly relied on the advice of interim city manager David Fine and elected both the mayor and acting mayor by secret ballot.

The purpose of the Public Meetings Law could hardly be more clear — to ensure that the public knows what its elected officials are doing. Casting secret ballots is about as blatant as a violation can be.

Oregon’s Attorney General publishes a guide to both the public meetings and the public records law. The city, if it doesn’t have one, should procure a copy.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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