Email chain discussing release of former city manager likely broke state law

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Shot of the email exchange between a majority of Scappoose city councilors dated Oct. 16 to Nov. 6.An email exchange between Scappoose City councilors sent to the Spotlight from Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge indicates the council likely held an illegal meeting earlier this month.

The email exchange involves discussion to hold a meeting to relieve former City Manager Jon Hanken of his position and includes all Scappoose city councilors as well as Burge.

Four of the seven council members — Barb Hayden, Mark Reed, Jason Meshell and Burge—were involved in a back-and-fourth discussion that led to the conclusion to hold an executive session Friday, Nov. 8, where the city council terminated Hanken’s contract.

“If there was a quorum of council members, they effectively convened a meeting as opposed to having an in-person session,” said attorney Jack Orchard, a partner in the Portland law firm Ball Janik LLP. “They needed to follow public meeting requirements if they were discussing city business... I would say that they needed to have those discussions in a public session.”

Oregon public meetings law requires majorities or quorums of locally elected public bodies to meet in open sessions to discuss public business.

“I didn’t even notice that,” said Burge. “I guess that’s one of the reasons that I didn’t have any trouble releasing the emails, I don’t have anything to hide about it.”

Calls from the Spotlight to the three other councilors involved in the discussion were not returned by press time.

One email from Meshell sent to all councilors in the exchange, dated Nov. 6, states, “[W]e can hold an executive session to discuss personnel matters relevant to the city that involves potential pending litigation with Jon [Hanken] and without making any decisions in that meeting, hold it for discussion only. Then we come out of executive session and into an emergency meeting, which will be open to the public. There we can make any decision that the council sees fit. We just need to give proper notice of the open meeting to the press and interested parties. Jon is welcome to attend that open meeting, as is anyone else. We have am [sic] emergency, in that the majority of the council wants to end this matter with Jon Will [sic] quickly and properly before it gets any more heated. Our city is being damaged, and we need to act to stop the bleeding. Please schedule an executive session followed by an open meeting Friday evening @ 600 pm. Its [sic] now too late for proper notice for a meeting Thursday.”

The Scappoose City Council isn’t the only Oregon board to recently violate the meetings law. In 2011, a judge ruled that Lane County Commissioners Rob Handy and Pete Sorenson violated the same Oregon public meetings law by meeting privately with a board majority to line up budget votes for staff jobs.

In that case, the judge approved a settlement against the Lane County Board of Commissioners in Eugene for violating the same law. Lane County was fined $350,000, and Commissioners Rob Handy and Pete Sorenson, were each fined $20,000 in damages to a former county commissioner and a retired Eugene business owner who filed the lawsuit.

In 2009, the Grants Pass Daily Courier sifted through 500 emails between city councilors to find they had violated Oregon public meetings law by using email to discuss city business with a majority of council members.

Dennis Roler, former editor with the Grants Pass Daily Courier, said five of the city’s councilors were recalled after the matter became public.

“There were other issues that, together with other factors, got them recalled,” he said, adding that the council had tried to fire its city manager without previously discussing the matter in an executive or open meeting. “They didn’t know the law, but that is no excuse for violating the law.”

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