Reporter Rob Manning was blocked from meetings of the Superintendent's Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfers

Oregon Public Broadcasting and Portland Public Schools were in court Friday, arguing over whether it was legal to exclude reporters from meetings of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfers.

The 12-member committee is now defunct but played a central role in creating tighter controls against moving kids out of their neighborhood schools. The board approved the recommendations Jan. 20.

SACET held 45 meetings beginning in 2008, but began in earnest in February 2013 to develop a district-wide plan. OPB decided to sue when its reporter Rob Manning was first denied access to to a meeting Sept. 27, 2014. OPB lists five meetings that were closed to the public in apparent violation of the district’s own rules stating that the meetings be open.

In Oregon, public meetings law states that government bodies authorized to make recommendations on policy should be open to the public.

The two parties do not disagree on the facts of the case, but rather whether the law applies to SACET. OPB is not suing for money, nor attorneys fees, but for a declaration that the district’s actions were unlawful.

For OPB’s attorneys, the issue centers on whether the June and November 2014 presentations SACET made to the board constituted “recommendations,” which they were clearly referred to at the time.

“So the question for you is, whether ... what was made to the board was somehow not recommendations,” said OPB attorney Duane Bosworth, noting some board members and committee members who also believed SACET's recommendations were going to the board.

For PPS’s attorneys, the primary question is whether or not SACET was a “government body.” While the group did make recommendations on policy, they argue that the recommendations were given to Superintendent Carole Smith and not directly to the board, and therefore it was not a government body.

“The superintendent’s committee in name, purpose and action, provided recommendations to only the superintendent,” said Miller Nash attorney Andrea Barton, representing PPS.

PPS bolstered its argument with the fact that the board did not immediately vote on the committee’s 12 recommendations when they were presented.

“(Smith) just said to the board: Here’s the background on what the committee said to me,” Barton argued. “Without that consideration or vote, they are nothing more than presentations.”

In October 1988, the Oregon Attorney General issued an opinion of whether an advisory committee is subject to public meetings law. In that case, the chancellor of the Oregon State System of Higher Education was told that his Presidential Search Committee would be required to open up its meetings as its recommendations were passed through to the board. However, the chancellor in that case may have had more limited powers than Smith had — but did not exercise — in altering the resulting recommendations.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Hamlin heard the motions for summary judgment and is expected to deliver his opinion in the coming weeks.

Hamlin appeared to have made up his mind, saying that he felt the issue centered on whether SACET made recommendations to the board in addition to the superintendent.

But Hamlin also said he didn’t think his opinion would settle the matter.

“I suspect this court may not be the last court to decide this issue,” he said.

Note: OPB is a news partner with Pamplin Media Group, which publishes the Portland Tribune.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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