Audience members who disrupted a Portland City Council meeting last week with yelling and swearing caused the city to close council chambers to the public during deliberations over a proposed new police union contract.

The city’s move was unprecedented in recent memory. It probably also was unlawful, according to Jack Orchard of the law firm Ball Janik. A top expert in Oregon Public Meetings Law, Orchard said that “The clear intent of the law is that the public officials and the public are in the same place at the same time.”

In one sense the city’s extreme move shows how successful activists were last week in getting the attention of officials as well as the news media. It also reflects officials seeking an alternative to the politically unappealing prospect of mass arrests at City Hall.

As it was, the decision to lock down the building on Wednesday and arrest just two of the activists drew major media coverage, as did the decision to halt the the regularly scheduled council meeting and continue it the following day.

The contract is scheduled for a final vote Wednesday. A spokesman for the mayor said he doesn’t believe another closed-door meeting will be necessary, “but that decision has not been determined.”

The police contract spearheaded by Mayor Charlie Hales has drawn opposition from elected Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, as well as Independent Police Review Director Constantin Severe.

Much of the audience Wednesday did not disrupt the meeting. The audience included a wide array of activists including many from the group Don’t Shoot Portland.

However, a small group of police activists continued a tactic of disruption that has become familiar to local officials.

Police activists say they are just using their right to free speech and employing standard civil disobedience.

But the trend has caused concerns at other public bodies in recent months, causing officials at times to consider closing off public access to police oversight meetings or limit most of the public to viewing a live online feed from a remote location — the same approach the City Council pursued Thursday.

Amy Watson, a consultant who monitors the city’s compliance with a federal oversight agreement while working with the Community Oversight Advisory Board, in June complained in an op-ed in The Oregonian that the mental illness claimed by some of the more vocal individuals was not an excuse. “This small group of mean-spirited individuals cannot be allowed to dominate meetings and drown out other community members.”

Access to the City Council meeting on Thursday was granted only to members of the media, some city staff and selected other members of the public, including a few people who weren’t able to complete their testimony the day before. Other would-be attendees could watch live video of the meeting from an adjacent building, city officials said. A plan to allow public testimony to occur remotely fell victim to technical difficulties.

Police activists then were allowed access to the meetings one by one after signing up to testify on agenda items other than the police contract.

Several testified on the city’s proposed acquisition of a bridge crane, for example, stressing the importance of public input on the bridge crane decision while raising concerns about police.

Attendance is a right

Orchard is sympathetic with officials trying to get the public’s business done in an orderly way. Nobody has the right to halt the public from having its business conducted in public, he says.

The move to close off Portland City Council proceedings appears to be at odds with guidance in the Attorney General’s Oregon Public Records and Manual which states that “public attendance” to public meetings is a “right.” It also says public meetings should be “open to the public ... meetings are accessible to persons wishing to attend.”

Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve defended the city’s actions last week, saying that watching the meeting from a remote location over a video feed meets the definition of public access, in her view.

But Orchard noted that watching a video feed is qualitatively different from seeing a public meeting in person.

The only provision in the law for audience members to access the meeting from a remote location is when the meeting is being conducted by telephone or other electronic means, according to the state’s public meetings manual.

And the only time the law doesn’t require open meetings is when a special closed-door executive session is authorized under a limited menu of lawful reasons, such as real estate transactions. Last week’s meeting concerning the police contract did not qualify for that treatment.

Oregon’s public meetings law doesn’t guarantee access to everyone, according to the Attorney General’s Oregon Public Records and Manual. “Any person who fails to comply with reasonable rules of conduct or who causes a disturbance may be asked or required to leave and upon failure to do so becomes a trespasser,” says the manual.

Said Orchard, “There certainly are times and circumstances when, to carry out public business in a timely basis, that there have to be limits placed on general public attendance or specific public attendance at a meeting.”

At the same time, he added, “you need to exclude only those people who indicate by their actions that they intend to disrupt the public’s business.”