Watch those e-mails

E-mail is a wonderful invention in many ways. It allows (usually) instant written communication. It permits users to exchange documents, photos, sound files and more with a few clicks of the mouse. But all that convenience and speed can be too tempting in some situations, especially for government bodies that are supposed to operate in full view of the public.

The Grants Pass City Council is finding that out. So far, the council hasn't had to learn the hard way, but only because the Grants Pass Daily Courier is being exceedingly nice.

The Courier's publisher and editor sent a letter to the council last week after reviewing e-mails the newspaper obtained from council members and the mayor. The paper requested the e-mails from council members' official and personal computers under Oregon law, which says electronic communications are public records just as paper documents are.

The letter asserts that the newspaper's review of the e-mails led it to conclude that council members were using e-mail to deliberate on public matters and even to vote.

We cannot make the same allegation, becuase we have not seen the e-mails. But we have no reason to doubt the Courier staff's professional judgment.

Oregon's Public Meetings Law is very clear about electronic communication between members of a governing body:

"... communications between and among a quorum of members of a governing body convening on elecronically linked personal comoputers are subject to the Public Meetings Law if the communications constitute a decision or deliberation toward a decision for which a quorum is required, or the gathering of information on which to deliberate."

The Courier's letter asserts that a quorum of council members regularly did exactly that. Not only did the group deliberate on public topics and sometimes make decisions about them, it did so while excluding not only the public but other members of the council.

Excluding the public from the workings of government violates state law. Excluding fellow council members violates the principles of decency and fair play.

The Courier's letter asked the council to develop a written policy on e-mail and other communication among council members to ensure that future communications comply with the Public Meetings Law. It further asked for a meeting with the city attorney to discuss the contents of that policy.

The letter asked for a meeting within two weeks, but several council members said Monday that wasn't likely to happen. One member said the council has higher priorities than the Courier's complaint and action could wait.

We respectfully suggest to the Grants Pass City Council that there are few priorities higher than making sure it is conducting the public's business in public. The council also should recognize that the newspaper is taking it easy on the city by asking for a meeting rather than filing a lawsuit.

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