Our opinion: Public meetings law needs sharper teeth
The St. Helens City Council's misuse of its executive session privilege to talk about repurposing the city's secondary wastewater lagoon on May 21 in Portland yet again demonstrates flaws in Oregon's public meetings law — and how local officials misinterpret the law.
A review of the St. Helens council's June 5 regular meeting — video is available on the city's website — further amplifies this misunderstanding. It also equally amplifies questions many in the St. Helens community have about the repurposing project and why talks involving local government officials, even in the earliest stages, should be held in the open.
The closed meeting was conducted outside of the city of St. Helens' boundaries — a no-no per Oregon public meetings law — and was cast as necessary to discuss "real property transactions," yet the discussion was not about buying, selling or leasing city land, as the exemption cited by the St. Helens officials allows. Instead, city officials met with public and private agency reps to workshop the nuances of repurposing the lagoon as a landfill for Superfund soils, explore feasibility of "the opportunity," confirm interest in proceeding, and other topics, per the meeting's agenda. The full May 21 agenda for the meeting held at the Portland office of consultants Maul Foster Alongi is available on our website.
At the June 6 City Council meeting, St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl several times implied that because no decisions were made, everything about the meeting was on the up and up. He's wrong. While a decision in executive session would have constituted yet another violation, concealing the workshop from the general public at a private facility in Portland, and burying it under an inappropriate state meeting's law exemption, renders it illegitimate in the first place. It should have been held in St. Helens as a workshop open to the public, and no amount of denial or equivocation by the city's elected officials or bureaucrats will change that.
St. Helens officials are not alone when it comes to public meetings law confusion. Nearly all government agencies in Columbia County have provided examples for why the law needs an overhaul, one that would give it teeth and encourage public organizations to strive for compliance. In some cases, the violations manifest as group emails among elected officials, sometimes using their personal email accounts. Others involve government officials convening a closed executive session for a singular purpose, but once the doors are closed and recording devices are turned off, the officials spew about any topic they so desire.
That's where we come in. One of our duties, and one of the reasons journalists are allowed to attend executive sessions, is to let public officials know when they're straying off topic. By law, we can report the entirety of an executive session if the rules are violated or if we are not informed of what specific information the governing body wishes to not have disclosed during the closed meeting. It's not something we routinely do, however. We would prefer public officials instead just comply with the law. And — let's face it — we can't be everywhere at once.
Just last week at a Scappoose School Board meeting, for example, two board members raised exception to an agenda item scheduled for approval that they allege the board had never previously discussed. The challenging board members, Lisa Maloney and Tim Brooks, argued the item — a contract valued at $36,000 with Interim Superintendent Paul Peterson to remain in a consultancy position with the district after new Superintendent Timothy Porter comes on board — was not talked about in executive or open session. In fact, they assert, much to other board members' consternation, they only learned about it just prior to the board meeting Monday, June 10.
This instance comes only weeks after the Scappoose School Board, under Chair Philip Lager, distributed a press release announcing it had decided to hire Porter as the new superintendent. Yet, the board had never met in open public session to vote on the hire, or to allow the public the opportunity to comment on the choice, as is required and spelled out in Oregon law. Lager attempted to walk back the press release, later arguing an official decision on Porter's hire had not occurred because his contract had not been signed. It's nonsense. The district widely disseminated a press release announcing its final decision absent a public meeting on the topic.
Similarly, St. Helens officials attempted to falsely justify the lagoon repurposing meeting in Portland.
Often, it's the public meetings law's conjoined cousin — Oregon public records law — that gets all the attention. In fact, Gov. Kate Brown recently signed new legislation that would penalize government agencies for noncompliance with aspects of the records law. House Bill 2353 is not perfect, but at least it's another step toward ensuring government transparency in Oregon.
To be clear, our interest in this regard, whether dealing with the St. Helens City Council, Scappoose School Board or any other public entity, is to encourage openness in government dealings, ideally in such a way that does not prompt the filing of ethics complaints — another convoluted process — against offending agencies for public meetings violations.
We believe the public has a right to know what elected and other officials are planning for their respective communities, and the right to participate in that process. In the instances cited above, that hasn't been the case.
The original version of this editorial had a misspelling of Philip Lager's first name. We regret the error.
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