Editorial: Councilors must avoid quorum on D.C. trip

Sean C. Morgan

Public meetings laws are important for us, the citizens of Oregon.

At the risk of sounding cynical, many otherwise upstanding public officials have an uncanny propensity toward secrecy and abuse of power when not restrained by laws that require access by the public (and the press) to proceedings in which government officials make decisions impacting our lives – and public funds.

Open meetings, as well as open records, are crucial to public trust.

Sometimes, though, application of open meetings laws can be a little sticky, and that was the case as the Sweet Home City Council last week attempted to decide who would represent the city at the Capitol Christmas Tree lighting in early December in Washington D.C.

The Capitol Christmas Tree is a big deal for Sweet Home, perhaps more so than many of us realize. Our name will be on the tree, at least figuratively, and our representatives – congressional and Senate – will certainly be honed in on the fact that the tree has come from their state, for the first time since 2002, when a tree was selected from the Umpqua National Forest. 

Local government representatives from Sweet Home – city manager, mayor, city council members, as well as at least one county commissioner – will be there and they will be poised to represent us. Our congressional representatives cover a lot of territory and, frankly, a lot of them haven’t demonstrated that they understand or particularly care about our needs here in rural Oregon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley comes to mind. Based on the stream of headlines we’ve seen and the emails we get from his office, he appears more preoccupied with rousing the forces of blue against President Trump and going to bat for the rights of immigrants than dealing with the problems that have left Sweet Home and other rural Oregon communities economically depleted for decades.

If Oregon’s legislators had been able to mount a savvy, informed response to federal policies over the past quarter century of federal timberland mismanagement, one wonders whether we would have the wildfire and overgrowth problems we have now – not to mention scores of economically devastated rural communities.

This is a chance to connect in a positive way, to let our representatives know who we are and what our issues are. Who knows? As our local wrestling coach often says, “This is an opportunity.”

If you’re wondering what the connection between open meetings laws and this trip to D.C. is, it’s spelled out in our story on page 5. Essentially, there’s a wrinkle that involves our City Council and how many should travel to Washington in December.

The council has decided to officially send three members: Mayor Greg Mahler and council members Susan Coleman and Dave Trask, both of whom have been most involved, of all the councilors, in the planning for the Capitol Christmas Tree events. The issue comes with Councilor Lisa Gourley’s desire to participate.

If she goes as an official member of the city delegation, that makes four council members – a quorum (enough voters to make a decision).

State open meetings laws strictly, for good reason, require that any meeting of a quorum must be open, except for several very specifically spelled-out exclusions that allow them to meet privately. Any other meeting must have an agenda of what they are going to be discussing or acting on, and it must be posted for members of the governing body, the public and the media at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting.

There are exclusions, and that’s where this gets sticky. They include such interactions as chance social gatherings (where no official business is discussed), staff meetings and other associations of which councilors may be members, conferences, field trips, retreats or goal-setting sessions, etc. Basically, if four of our seven council members attend a concert and run into each other in the lobby at the intermission, as long as they do not stray into city business it would not be considered a “public meeting.”

Obviously, there’s a lot of potential for gray areas here, and this trip is one of them. If we were to send four council members, individuals who are not allowed to make official decisions for the city unless they’re within the bounds of the law, there’s still a risk that they could discuss city business, affecting decisions when they return to their jurisdiction, which would be a violation of the law. Don’t think it could happen? We’ve seen it happen.

This can happen within the city limits and it has, elsewhere if not here. Though we live in a small town, there’s always a danger that something like this could happen if council members start flouting the law. Four councilors having breakfast together would be pushing the line of propriety very far.

That’s why we appreciate the fact that council members and City Manager Ray Towry have expressed great concern over this possibility. We also understand that Gourley wants to attend the Christmas tree event.

The problem is how this looks: not good. How do we know that four members of the council aren’t having a little get-together over coffee to craft a decision they’ll make official when they get back? The advantages of such a process are obvious, at least for the players: no need to state the rationale behind a decision, no public scrutiny of the process, no input from the public or staff – basically free rein to do whatever they want.

We’re not implying that this would happen, since six of the seven council members were rather outspoken in their opposition to a foursome going. But that’s the point.

When one becomes a City Council member, one has to play by rules that don’t apply to normal life. It’s part of the responsibility of the position, which comes with some power. That power is regulated by the open meetings law.

It’s possible that the city could come up with a creative solution, such as limiting Gourley to a non-official role that doesn’t include any planned interaction with any other members of the Sweet Home delegation. Or she could choose not to go at all, which would be the simple solution and spare the city a lot of hassle.

But we get it: This is a big moment for the city, and Gourley wants to be there.

That’s fine, as long as her presence doesn’t violate the public’s confidence. This is, as the state Attorney General’s Public Meetings and Records Manual puts it, “a very sensitive area.”

We appreciate the sensitivity being shown it by the council and city staff around this question.