Council gag rule is inappropriate

"The Public Records and Public Meetings Laws were enacted by the Oregon Legislature in 1973. These laws underscore the state's policy that the public is entitled to know how the public's business is conducted."

— Attorney General's Public Recordsand Meetings Manual

In an apparent attempt to clarify how individual Ashland City Council members should communicate with the public they serve, the council is considering a new ordinance that seeks to limit that communication. The language is unnecessary and runs counter to the intent of the state's Public Meetings Law.

The language in question refers to executive (closed-door) sessions, which public bodies may hold for limited purposes under state law. Those purposes include disciplinary action against employees, the purchase or sale of property, labor negotiations and discussions with legal counsel regarding actual or potential litigation.

The Public Meetings Law allows news reporters to attend most executive sessions with the understanding that they will not report what takes place there. The intent is to keep public bodies honest — to make sure they don't take up matters in executive session that ought to be discussed in public.

However, if a reporter obtains information outside the executive session, it may be reported. That means that, if a participant in an executive session later tells a reporter what took place in that session, the reporter may use the information.

Ashland's proposed ordinance contains a clause that reads, "Councilors and staff should not discuss executive session matters with the press following adjournment of the executive session, because to do so may permit the press to report on the matter."


City officials note the language says "should not," rather than "shall not," so it's merely advisory. If that's the case, why does it need to be an ordinance?

Officials also point out that several Oregon cities have similar ordinances on their books. That doesn't make it right, nor does it mean those ordinances actually work to prevent disclosure of information a council would rather keep under wraps.

In practice, council members who want to disclose what happens in an executive session will do so, and ought to be free to do so. And reporters who want to tell the public something the public ought to know will find a way to get that information.

The Public Meetings Law is very specific about what may be discussed in executive sessions. It says nothing about whether participants should discuss those proceedings outside the executive session.

The law has worked well for decades without any restrictions on who may say what to whom outside an executive session.

Ashland's ordinance seeks to muzzle individual elected officials, and future council members not yet elected. That violates the intent behind Oregon's Public Meetings Law and is almost certainly unenforceable.

As the Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual states, "Any doubts in interpreting the legislation should be resolved in favor of providing the public with information. ... Even when public bodies have the ability to operate in secret, they generally are not required to do so."

Neither are individual public officials, nor should they be.

Share This Story