Writings and observations

Weakening Oregon’s public meetings

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From testimony prepared for delivery by Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon, about a bill amending Oregon’s public meeting law.

I am here today to testify on behalf of the Independent Party of Oregon in opposition to HB 3513.

Before addressing the substantive provisions of the bill, I would like to point out that Oregon ranks among the worst states in the nation with regard to “Public Access to Information”, according to the State Integrity Investigation, a project of Public Radio International and the Center for Public Integrity.

This bill would take a bad system and make it far worse. Short of an outright repeal, it is difficult to imagine a bill that would more effectively dismantle Oregon’s public meetings law.

The impetus behind this legislation appears to be a case that was settled in 2011, in which the Lane County Commission, and most particularly Commissioners Pete Sorenson and Rob Handy, were convicted of violating the state’s public meetings law for engaging a series of meetings and communications in 2009 that culminated in what Judge Michael Gillespie called a “sham vote” to approve a supplemental budget that hired part time assistants for the Lane County Commission.

I have attached a copy of the judge’s ruling in that case, as well as copies of numerous editorials and news stories that were published around the time that decision was reached that affirm the need for maintaining strong open meetings laws in Oregon.

Given the importance of the state’s public records law, I suspect that this
legislation will draw intense scrutiny from the press should this legislation move forward in this committee.

With regard to the bill itself…

HB 3513 constitutes a radical departure from current law.

Under Oregon Statute, all meetings of governing bodies that involve “deciding on or deliberating toward a decision” must be held in public unless the content of the meeting is specifically exempted in ORS 192.610 – ORS 192.690.

This legislation limits the scope of matters relating to decisions by governing bodies only to those relating to “budget, fiscal, or policy” matters.

None of these terms “budget, fiscal, and policy” are defined in the bill or in any part of ORS 192.610 to 192.690, so presumably it would be left to the governing body seeking to circumvent the public meetings law to determine whether decisions made in private meetings relate to any of those categories.

Second, the bill effectively neuters Oregon’s Public meetings law by exempting the following topics from the definition of “deciding on or deliberating toward a decision.”

(A) Communication that is wholly unrelated to the conduct of the public’s business;

(B) Fact gathering activities; or

(C) On-site inspections of property or facilities at a location other than the regularly scheduled meeting room of the governing body.

The latter two of these exemptions are especially troubling.

Fact gathering missions must currently be held in public, pursuant to Oregonian Publishing Co. v. Oregon State Board of Parole, 99 Or App 501 (1989).

Fact gathering is often the most crucial stage at which decisions are made by government. It would be unimaginable that a judge in a court of law should accept facts outside of the context of a public hearing open to all parties. Given that the role of governing bodies such as county commissions or city councils is often “quasi-judicial”, as in the case of land use decisions or other variances from local ordinances, what is the rationale for adopting a lower standard for Oregon’s governing bodies?

Similarly, the bill exempts from the definition of “deciding on or deliberating toward a decision.” “Onsite inspections of property or facilities at a location other than the regularly scheduled meeting room of the governing body.”

The plain ordinary language of that subsection makes it clear that anything can be discussed in private, so long as the meeting occurs at a location other than the regularly scheduled meeting room of the

ORS 192.620 states that: “The Oregon form of government requires an informed public aware of the deliberations and decisions of governing bodies and the information upon which such decisions were made. It is the intent of ORS 192.610 to 192.690 that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”

I would respectfully submit that no part of this bill serves that public purpose and recommend against moving this bill forward.

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