West Linn case has statewide implications
Well, one of West Linn's public records issues came to a head last week and another has yet to be decided.
The second question regards an audio recording of an executive session held by the City Council. This was an "unauthorized" executive session if you will, where the topic of discussion was not one legally allowed for executive session (as validated by the state ethics commission, which censured the council on the issue).
The city of West Linn has refused to release the recordings, which have been requested by a member of the public. It seems patently clear that if the issues discussed at the meeting should have been deliberated in the public meeting, then the recording should be public. Will it possibly embarrass the city to release the recording? Potentially. And could it open the door for more requests for executive session records? Possibly, but that's the price the city should pay for committing such a big faux pas.
Transparency is transparency, regardless of the intent of those seeking to reveal and those seeking to hide.
Which brings us to the more recent public records issue: the refusal of Council Terri Cummings to release notes she has taken during her commission of city business. The irony here is lost on no one. Cummings, long a critic of the city of West Linn for its lack of transparency, is now essentially crying "But this is different!" in her attempt to withhold her notes .
It's painfully obvious that Cummings never heard (or understood) the idiom growing up, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." While she's often criticized this newspaper for what she sees as "manufacturing" scandal to sell newspapers, she herself was the individual rattling our cage a few years ago, encouraging us to flay the then-city manager and city council in our pages over the changes to city attorney policies – a change West Linn voters have twice validated.
There was never any question to us that Cumming's notes were a valid public record: City policy said they were and precedent from governments throughout the state supported that position. But a judge heard both sides' request for a summary judgement last week and the judge shocked us by more or less declaring that electeds at the city level of government are not the "public bodies" described in public records law.
Come again? Aren't elected individuals what comprise a body?
And how does this argument clear them of not being capable of creating public records? If we email a city councilor at their city email account, that's a public record, even if we are asking for a coffee date. The same is true for a text message the city councilor sent a friend while in the city meeting. None of those are records created by the body as a whole, but individuals who comprise the body. State law is crystal clear on those types of atypical methods of communication being public records.
But as we've seen with the city's legal structure, Cummings' tunnel vision knows no bounds. She lobbies for all manner of city records to be made public, except when it is ones she'd rather not. And she'll keep pushing the city attorney issue until she gets the answer she wants, despite the wishes of the majority of West Linn residents and the fact that it comes with an expensive ballot box bill.
Overall, both instances highlight West Linn's ongoing wacky politics and are an embarrassment to the community. The Cummings' case is no longer a local matter, as the strange ruling makes this an important issue for every media organization in Oregon.
The spotlight on this case is about to grow exponentially. We know that virtually every newspaper in Oregon is now aware, as it was a point of discussion during a talk by Oregon's Public Records Advocate at the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association yearly conference this weekend. Appealing this decision is vital to protecting the state's open records laws — which means Cummings' refusal to do the public's business in public will be a topic of conversation for months to come.
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