Postcards from the edge

Ashland's new mayor and City Council members are off to a less-than-auspicious beginning after they held a private get-together at the mayor's home on Sunday. The public was not invited, nor was the meeting publicized in advance.

Let's be clear at the outset: The gathering was not illegal under Oregon's Public Meetings Law — as far as we know. And that's just one concern.

Newly elected Mayor John Stromberg said he wanted the City Council to "have a meal and have some time together" and to "talk a little bit about how we work together."

The Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual — the bible of open government in Oregon — says "Purely social gatherings of the members of a governing body are not covered by the law."

So far, so good — as long as Sunday's event remained "purely social."

But two things apparently occurred during the gathering that should cause concern in Ashland, where spirited public involvement in government is a long-standing tradition.

First, the council discussed the training sessions organized in 2007 by former Mayor John Morrison when council members had difficulty working together without friction. The council voted at the time to pay for the sessions with a professional trainer at a cost of $37,000 in taxpayers' money.

Training sessions also can be held privately under the law. The Attorney General's Manual, again: "For example, a governing body may have a training on improving personal interaction among its members. If that training is carefully structured to avoid any discussion of official business, and no such discussion occurs, the training would not be subject to the meetings law."

So, presumably, would a discussion of the 2007 training sessions during a "purely social gathering" in 2009 — unless the subject of spending $37,000 in public money happened to come up. That could push the discussion into the arena of proper expenditures of public funds — a fundamental policy issue.

The second troublesome occurrence during Sunday's gathering reportedly was a discussion of how long members of the public should be allowed to speak during council meetings. Should it be three minutes, or five?

If that's not a matter of intense public concern in Ashland, it ought to be.

City officials maintain that under Ashland's rules, the mayor regulates public testimony at his discretion, so the council has no decision-making role. But it's fair to assume the mayor received opinions from council members about limits on public participation.

Do Ashland residents have an interest in knowing where their elected representatives stand on public participation in council meetings? We wouldn't want to be the ones to suggest they don't.

The Attorney General's Manual says, "... a purpose to deliberate on any matter of official policy or administration may arise during a social gathering and lead to a violation."

Did that happen on Sunday? It's a close call — and that's exactly why the gathering was a bad idea. Even the most casual observer of politics knows the appearance of impropriety can be as risky as the real thing. In this case, the council strayed too close to the edge.

The Attorney General's Manual cautions that members of public bodies "must avoid any discussions of official business during such a gathering. And, they should be aware that some citizens may perceive social gatherings as merely a subterfuge for avoiding the Public Meetings Law."

Imagine that.

Share This Story