Talent official questions city's adherence to public meeting laws

TALENT — A city council member says the city is failing to follow state law when it notifies the public of closed executive sessions.

"We continue to unlawfully notice these meetings and we are just not being transparent for the citizens of Talent," said Councilor Darby Stricker. Others who are concerned about a legal dispute over an asphalt plant's operations have joined Stricker in sending emails on the executive session issue to city leaders.

Stricker's concerns centered on the executive session for Wednesday night's meeting, which was identified only as "to consider records exempt from public inspection." She's also unhappy about previous notices.

An attorney for the city says she thinks the notice was sufficient.

"I think they need to let the public know the basis. I don't think they need to let the public know the specific subject," said attorney Lauren Sommers, of the Eugene law firm Speer Hoyt LLC, which represents the city.

Jack Orchard, a Portland lawyer who specializes in media law, said he regards such a vague notice as "borderline," although the general topic is one of 15 permissible purposes for calling an executive session.

"I would push them a little bit and say, 'What kind of records are we talking about?' " Orchard said. "There are millions of pages of material that are exempt from public disclosure. It's a better interpretation of the statute to identify the topic of the record."

Oregon Revised Statutes require that notice of any government meeting, including executive sessions, "include a list of the principal subjects anticipated to be considered at the meeting."

The list should be specific enough to permit members of the public to recognize the matters in which they are interested, according to the Oregon attorney general's Public Records and Meeting Manual.

"Public works contract" is not regarded as a sufficient description if a government body was considering demolition of a landmark building, the manual states. A sample notice for an executive session in the manual's Appendix B reads, "The session will consider an applicant for the position of Assistant Marine Biologist."

Stricker on May 23 sent council members, Mayor Bill Cecil and four city administrators an email protesting the notice of Wednesday night's session.

The executive session preceded a special City Council meeting and public hearing to consider whether the city should withdraw an appeal of Jackson County decisions that allow Mountain View Paving to continue to operate just outside city limits on Bear Creek.

Paving firm and city officials have been discussing possible mitigation of impacts from the plant on nearby citizens and potential purchase of the site for use as open space.

All notices of executive sessions are written by the city attorney before publication, said City Manager Tom Corrigan.

Sommers noted that checks and balances are provided because news reporters are allowed to attend executive sessions with the agreement they don't report what is said in them.

"I think that's the system the Legislature has created to balance out the public's right to know," said Sommers. She also said the Legislature recognizes that public bodies should have rights similar to private parties in some situations.

Stricker would like more disclosure.

"I want us to comply with the law and for good reason," said Stricker. "We shouldn't be doing anything that the public is not aware of in principal subject matter. There are sunshine (open government) laws that need to be respected."

Meri Walker, Vene Ford, Lynn Horn and George Weiss have sent emails voicing similar concerns to city officials with copies forwarded to the Mail Tribune.

"When an executive session is announced the same night we are having a public hearing, we have a right to know what is the topic of the session," said Walker, who wonders whether the executive session is related to Mountain View Paving issues.

Oregon's attorney general and district attorneys have no enforcement role under public meetings law, the attorney general's manual states.

"Education and persuasion are by far the best tools available to obtain compliance," the manual reads. Should those efforts fail, lawsuits to require compliance or prevent violations of meetings laws may be filed. Statutes also allow filing complaints with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for violations of executive session regulations.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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