City officials defend council's attendance at private meeting for business owners

A city-commissioned merchants meeting hosted and paid for by a contracted event planner for the city of St. Helens last Tuesday, March 27, may have violated state law.

St. Helens business owners, many of whom operate shops on the riverfront, were invited to the private meeting to talk about issues of importance to them in the city, and give feedback. The meeting was held at The Roof bar and restaurant in St. Helens.

The meetings are part of a recently expanded scope of responsibilities in the city's contract with event production company, E2C Productions.

Members of the general public and the press were strictly prohibited from the event, and board members of the St. Helens Economic Development Corp. said they, too, were discouraged from attending, despite nearly all of the St. Helens City Council being present at various times throughout meeting.

St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl, Councilor Keith Locke and Councilor Susan Conn were present, alongside City Administrator John Walsh, who gave a presentation during the private meeting. Councilor Ginny Carlson reportedly also attended.

When confronted about having a council quorum at a private meeting, meeting coordinator Tina Curry, who runs E2C, indicated Locke was on his way out, but Locke did not immediately exit the meeting. Another councilor showed up later during the meeting, making for nearly an entire council present at once, Walsh confirmed.

Walsh adamantly defended the meeting, saying there was no violation of Oregon's public meetings law, which forbids a quorum of a governing body from meeting and conducting business without providing notice or access to the public.

"There's a few tiers to it," Walsh said last week of what constitutes a public meeting. "There's quorum, and then you have to be conducting city business."

Others disagree, saying the meeting — which allowed councilors to listen to business owners and, at least once, converse with each other based on feedback received — counts as city business.

Jack Orchard, an attorney with Ball Janik and legal counsel to the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, said the meeting could be considered a violation of state law.

"If the purpose of the meeting was to inquire about how the City can serve [businesses,] then deliberations toward some City action/decision were occurring," Orchard stated. "Hence, this is a public meeting and the Open Meetings law should be followed."PHOTO COURTESY OF RANDY SANDERS - St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl (left), City Councilor Keith Locke, and City Administrator John Walsh attend a merchants meeting in downtown St. Helens Tuesday, March 27. At least one other councilor was there at the time, making for a quorum at a meeting that was not open to the public.

Walsh did not respond to questions about legal training for elected officials, but Scholl said Wednesday that he never received any formal legal training on laws governing elected officials and governing bodies. Rather, he was referred to the Attorney General's manual.

"There's a state book I could've read," Scholl said, but noted many of the laws are "open to interpretation."

"I was encouraged that most of the council showed up," Scholl said. "We are amazed at how productive it was."Mayor Rick Scholl

Curry and Scholl said the council's attendance at last week's meeting was unplanned.

"The gatherings that I've been holding are for merchants," Curry stated via email. "Some councilors randomly came to the last one to observe. In open council I said to stop by and that is what they did, randomly. In the future, I will not be so general and ensure that no rules are broken although I'm certain none were."

A portion of this story appeared with a previous story, published online March 30, about a petition started over Styrofoam stone props on the St. Helens riverfront.

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