In Ashland, a turn to the dark side?

The Ashland City Council seems to be buying into the Richard Nixon theory of the press. Like everything Nixonian, it's complex, but here's the nutshell version:

1. If the people find out what's up, your goose is cooked. 2. Unless there's a rat, the guys who'll tell what's up are the press. 3. The press is to be misled, manipulated, excoriated and stonewalled.

The council is threatening to bar members from talking to reporters about what the council talks about in private sessions. They ran out of time Tuesday before they could take it up.

But whoa. Three questions:

1. Are these people adults? 2. Are they capable of thinking for themselves? 3. Don't they have a right to talk if they want?

Executive sessions under Oregon law may be held for clearly defined reasons, such as to discuss lawsuits, personnel issues and real estate deals. Reporters are barred from producing stories based on what they learn in such sessions. This doesn't stop members from talking later if they wish. What's the problem we're fixing here?

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for temporary secrecy. But human nature being what it is, public bodies have also abused executive sessions to talk about other stuff they'd like to hide. I have sat in meetings focused on how better to keep secrets from the voters.

This ain't the way it's supposed to work, folks.

Covering higher education 20 years ago, I'd talk with Natale Sicuro, and later Joe Cox, presidents of then-Southern Oregon State College. The contrast was instructive. With Sicuro you went through hoops, and he wasn't always easy to reach, and he could be evasive and blustery. Cox was almost always available. He would even duck out of a state Higher Ed board meeting on a break to return a call. He faced questions squarely.

Sicuro later got in trouble at Portland State for improperly diverting money. With the faculty screaming for his head, the state cut a deal that let him quit without admitting wrongdoing. Cox became chancellor of the state's entire university system, leading it through a time of change and retiring to great applause.

I always thought you could see their futures by their theories of press relations. I figured Cox would wash out because he was too nice, while Sicuro had what it took to go places. I'm a little cynical.

Ashland has a reputation for a progressive civic life, which places value on maximum transparency. I haven't watched its council for years, and I can't imagine why they'd want to go in the direction of a gag rule. Has somebody sabotaged a real estate deal or a lawsuit? Then take it up with him rather than acting like a jealous child having a hissy fit.

The thing has about it a whiff of the arrogant paranoia that seeks to draw the shroud of secrecy ever tighter. At the federal level, laws to promote public access to information have been undermined in recent years, while those that permit the government to keep secrets have been expanded, sometimes to ridiculous lengths.

To repeat, council members don't have to talk if they don't want to. But in general, the better the public servant, the more he wants to talk. You maintain your relationships, and no good reporter will burn a source.

In the end we choose to move toward openness or secrecy. A gag rule moves us toward the dark side. It ain't over until it's over, but I predict big things for the Ashland City Council. Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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