Enforcing public meetings law protects democracy
In the early 1970s all 50 states and the District of Columbia enacted laws requiring government to conduct its business openly, rather than behind closed doors.
These "open government" or "sunshine" laws grew out of public concern with government secrecy. At the time, I was a naive leader in student government, planning activities and volunteering for a local candidate's campaign.
It wasn't until many years later when I began following the decisions of my elected officials more closely that I learned public meeting law is essential to democracy.
This is primarily the reason I filed complaints to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission alleging violations when Mayor Axelrod, Council President Brenda Perry and Councilor Bob Martin discussed budget and policy matters in a meeting closed to the public.
Ironically, they discussed future city legal services- the very issue that remains unresolved since 2013 when Mayor Kovash and Councilors Carson, Jones and Tan stipulated to violating public meeting law for privately deliberating their decision to institute legal services different from that structured by City Charter.
Last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected changing the charter to accommodate what's become known as the "hybrid model" for legal services. Citizens continue to recognize their participation is paramount to deciding the best legal structure for the City and rightfully expect access to information and discussion of the issue.
For this reason, I filed a public record request for portions of the audio recording of the closed meeting that relate to future legal services. Public meeting law requires the City to release records which are not exempt from public disclosure.
The City denied my request without meeting its burden of proving an exemption exists. Oregon Public Meetings and Records Laws go hand in hand, so this indicated to me that City administration, along with Mayor Axelrod and Councilors Perry and Martin lack real understanding of the policy of "openness." I wanted to believe they would admit and amend their errors when Mayor Axelrod claimed the City self-reported to the Ethics Commission.
Little did he know the City Manager could not make such a report on behalf of the Mayor and Councilors, who would need to individually file a complaint on themselves.
Disappointingly, the Mayor appeared to not understand the crux of the matter and downplayed its seriousness in an interview with a Tidings reporter, calling it a "common mistake made by councils everywhere," according to the Nov. 8 article, "Disorder in the Court."
Equally disappointing was the misdirected focus of this article on the lack of civil discourse as the problem larger than a few "minor errors" potentially violating public meeting law.
At the Oct.29 work session, Councilor Cummings pointed out the errors, offered information about the law, suggested possible resolutions and wanted assurance from Mayor Axelrod that this sort of thing would never happen again.
For the most part, the Mayor listened and did not disagree; however, he characterized Cummings intention as an attack on him and accused her of grandstanding. Perhaps he and the reporter mistook Cummings' passion to uphold the law.
My experience has led me to appreciate the role of individual citizens and the news media to watchdog government and utilize enforcement measures to protect open government. When the media fails in this responsibility, it is left for a citizen to step up and let the "sunshine" in.
Karie Oakes is a resident of West Linn.
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