Leave the light on

A new complaint alleging the Phoenix City Council violated Oregon's public meetings law provides an opportunity to revisit the issue of open government — always a worthwhile endeavor.

In the most recent case, a longtime critic of Phoenix city leaders is again accusing them of illegal secrecy. He may or may not be right; that's for state officials to determine.

But city officials in Phoenix and in other cities should do everything they can to err on the side of openness, which is what the law intends.

The Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual, which explains in detail the intricacies of Oregon's open government rules, quotes the state statute requiring open meetings: "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."

The manual goes on to advise: "In case of questions about the application of the Public Meetings Law to particular circumstances, the policy section of the law ordinarily will require a decision favoring openness."

The law allows a public body such as a city council to meet behind closed doors in a few specific circumstances, such as to discuss employee discipline, conduct labor negotiations, negotiate the purchase or sale of real property and confer with legal counsel involving litigation.

In the Phoenix case, former council member Steve Schulman accuses the council of holding closed sessions to discuss the salary of the city administrator and to appoint the members of a bargaining team to conduct labor negotiations.

Again, we don't know the facts, but if closed sessions were held for those purposes, they violated the law. The attorney general's manual specifically cites an opinion issued in 1982 saying an executive's salary may not be discussed in executive session. Labor negotiations may be held in secret, but appointing members to a negotiating committee may not.

Phoenix Mayor Jeff Bellah expresses frustration with Schulman, asking why he didn't bring his concerns to the council before filing a formal complaint with the State Ethics Commission. Bellah has a point.

Elected city officials, especially in small towns, seldom seek office for the chance to run roughshod over open meetings laws. They are also, however, seldom experts in the intricacies of those laws. Giving them the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to comply with the law before lodging a formal complaint will go a long way toward maintaining civic harmony.

Phoenix is not alone in stumbling over executive session rules. Other cities have as well, including Medford.

The importance of conducting the public's business in public cannot be overemphasized, and closed-door sessions should be held only when absolutely necessary. The attorney general's manual gets the last word on this: "A governing body may hold an open session even when the law permits it to hold an executive session."

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