Public means public

A savvy citizen in Shady Cove has called the City Council on its use of email to make a decision without holding a public meeting, which is a violation of state law. The council should consider itself warned and make sure such a situation does not arise again.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1526, which would have exempted email from public meetings laws, died in committee in the recently concluded legislative session. It should stay dead, with a stake driven through its heart if necessary.

The Shady Cove situation arose when the Oregon Department of Transportation told the city in December that a requested speed-limit reduction on Highway 62 was not warranted. Earlier this month, local businesswoman Heather Johnson asked City Administrator Danise Brakeman why the City Council had not appealed the ODOT ruling by the Feb. 29 deadline. Brakeman recalled asking the council about an appeal but could not find a record of the conversation, so she emailed each council member to ask again. Three of the five council members said they did not wish to appeal.

That, said Johnson, was a clear violation of the state's open meetings law. She's absolutely right.

The law requires public bodies to deliberate and make decisions in open meetings. The public must be informed of the meetings in advance and given an opportunity to attend.

Emails sent between a city employee and elected council members clearly violate this requirement.

The Shady Cove situation is easily fixed. The council should, as Johnson has requested, ask ODOT for an extension of time to decide whether to appeal, and hold a public meeting or meetings to make that decision.

The matter of SB 1526 raises a larger issue.

The bill was introduced after a judge ruled that two Lane County commissioners intentionally violated the law by holding a series of individual meetings, many by email. The judge specifically found that emails were a way to deliberate and were subject to public meetings laws.

The bill that resulted would declare that emails are by definition not deliberations. The bill further says "Multiple or related dialogues or other communications" between members of a governing body are not deliberations either, as long as "No single dialogue or other communication on the matter is with a quorum of the governing body."

That would mean two members could email each other or discuss a matter before the body, then one of them could email another member, and so on until agreement was reached, all without a public meeting.

The bill would turn Oregon's public meetings law on its head by giving elected bodies a way to avoid conducting the public's business in public. It should not see the light of day again.

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