Bill would trample on public's right to know
After a judge fined Lane County Commissioners Pete Sorenson and Rob Handy $20,000 each for willful, egregious violations of Oregon’s public meetings law in 2011, Handy announced, “And I am ready to consider what we may do in response to this ruling. We start that discussion today.”
That remark seemed to pop into clearer focus this week when HB 3513, introduced by a member of the Lane County delegation, came up for a hearing in the House Rules Committee. The bill would do great damage to Oregon’s 40-year-old, Watergate-inspired public meetings law, in the process seeming to legalize shenanigans similar to what the judge found offensive.
One of the defenses offered at trial was lack of familiarity with the law, but Sorenson is an attorney who rose to the rank of assistant minority leader in the Oregon Senate in the 1990s. What’s more, he’d been warned by an independent-minded county counsel previously, the court noted.
It seems the commissioners, both still in office, wanted to fund assistants for themselves and their three colleagues. And they wanted to do it through the back door, away from public scrutiny.
In the guise of a series of “Book Club” meetings, they went so far as to actually tally votes on various elements, determining which would garner six votes on the 10-member budget committee. They found ways to conduct those deliberations toward a decision without ever having an actual quorum present, apparently thinking that would keep them safe.
Circuit Judge Michael Gillespie called the exercise a sham. He wrote in a 44-page ruling, “It was orchestrated down to the timing and manner of the vote to avoid any public discussion.”
HB 3513 seems to encourage this sort of skullduggery as well as untold similar mischief. And to their shame, both the Association of Oregon Counties and League of Oregon Cities have signaled support.
The bill would require public deliberation only on matters of “budget, fiscal or policy,” leaving it to officials to define those terms in their own way. It’s unclear which matters this new language seeks to exclude from open meetings.
It would exempt fact-gathering activities, also subject to broad and imaginative interpretation, serving to overturn Oregonian Publishing Co. v. Oregon State Board of Parole, along the way. That sounds like an invitation to avoid the pesky press simply by declaring you are limiting yourself to a fact-finding exercise. And with the press not present, who would ever be able to suggest otherwise?
New language about quorums, again with no clarity of definition, could encourage the kind of “daisy-chaining” decision-making condemned in the Eugene case.
A previous Legislature declared: “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. It is the intent of ORS 192.610 to 192.690 that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”
Those are wise words. Let’s heed them.