Unfamiliar with the concept

The Talent City Council is undergoing what amounts to a refresher course on Oregon public meetings law. The council needs to brush up on the law because it failed the course the first time around.

In September, the Talent council held two executive sessions — meaning closed to the public — under a portion of the state open meetings law that allows a council to meet in secret to evaluate the performance of a chief executive officer. In this case, the employee was City Manager Jay Henry.

The first error the council made was to discuss amending Henry's contract during the executive session, something that clearly is not allowed during closed meetings. Governing bodies may discuss specific sensitive issues, such as an individual's job performance, behind closed doors, but may take no action. The body must return to open session before taking any votes.

Mayor Bob Cecil, who was then a councilman, said the council reached a consensus to alter the contract during the closed session. A consensus is permitted and, in fact, expected during a closed session, but only for a permitted purpose and only if the final decision is made by a vote in open session. In this case, the council was supposedly evaluating Henry's performance but discussed amending his contract instead — changing the rules, in effect — and that's not permitted in an executive session.

The council compounded its error by failing to record the closed-door proceedings, either with an audio or video device or on paper. The law clearly requires that executive sessions be recorded just as public meetings are, although the resulting record is not necessarily public.

A record is important because if the executive session is challenged, the adjudicating body can consult the record to determine whether the closed meeting was legitimate. If the executive session is found to have been held improperly, the public can find out what took place. In this case, no record exists.

Former Mayor Don Steyskal, who presided over the September sessions, said the council had not been keeping records of closed sessions "because it was something that wasn't going to go out."

Sorry, but that's not the council's choice to make.

Even after the executive session Sept. 15, the decision to modify Henry's contract was not included in the minutes of the subsequent open session.

Open meetings laws can be confusing, especially to new public officials or members of small-town city councils, school boards or fire district boards whose meetings often attract little or no public attention. That is all the more reason to follow the rules carefully.

It appears that whatever the Talent council thinks it decided last fall — and earlier this month, when it set performance standards for Henry without a vote — may not be legally valid unless the decisions are repeated in public. That needs to happen sooner rather than later.

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