Openness should be the goal

The Phoenix City Council has a fondness for closed-door meetings and a history of trying to control the flow of information. Recent developments indicate this tendency is still alive and well. City Council members should make sure they are familiar with state public meetings law.

Executive sessions (closed-door meetings that exclude the public) are sometimes necessary. State law provides for executive sessions under very specific circumstances.

Former City Council member Mike Stitt says the current council has held as many closed meetings as open ones since the first of the year. That seems excessive for any municipality, although it is true Phoenix has had its share of legal and personnel issues in recent months.

City councils may meet in closed session to discuss with their attorney litigation or litigation likely to be filed. Councils also may meet in private to discuss discipline or performance evaluations of employees, real property transactions and labor negotiations.

All of these areas are appropriate for discussion during closed-door meetings. But the Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual — the bible of open government in Oregon — makes it clear that final actions must take place in open session.

Public bodies also must take care to strictly limit what they discuss to the specific case that justified the closed meeting. For instance, an executive session called to discuss the employment of a city staff member may not be used to discuss general employment policies, only the employment of specific individuals.

Stitt says that when he was on the council, executive sessions frequently turned into "chat sessions" involving subjects not listed on the agenda.

Councilwoman Karen Jones said the council follows the advice of the city attorney or administrators when holding closed sessions. She said the number of executive sessions was not excessive. "We have the necessary amount for the business we have to do in the way that the state requires us to do business," she said.

However, nothing in state law requires closed meetings. The state public meetings law allows closed meetings in limited situations, but the attorney general's manual notes, "A governing body may hold an open session even when the law permits it to hold an executive session."

The guiding principle in all government meetings must be as much openness as possible. Government works best when its citizens can see and hear it in action.

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