Dec 15, 2006

Open Meetings Laws and City Councils

There was an article in yesterday's Medford Mail Tribune that caught my eye-
Medford Mail Tribune- Is council 'meeting' in secret? - December 14, 2006
Councilman's Web log insinuates that other panel members defy public meetings laws (councilor Statler's blog can be found here.)

I won't go into the details of the situation in Medford. But the article brings up interesting points about Oregon's open meeting laws. In Troutdale, we've been very cautious about meeting both the letter and the intent of the open meetings requirements. (For a review of Oregon's open meeting requirements, click here.)

Of course, councilors talk or e-mail each other individually to discuss ideas or lobby for certain items. It may seem like it's easy to get four votes lined up one at a time before a meeting. But it's not. Promised votes aren't the same as real votes. "Watch Your Back" is the main theme if you try to play this game. However, lining up votes one by one IS the name of the game in politics.

But a funny thing happens when there's an audience in the council chambers or when the TV cameras are on. People change their minds. One Troutdale city councilor in particular does nothing BUT change their mind. I won't say who it is, but this individual never met a waffle they didn't embrace. It's called not having a spine. It's called standing for nothing but the blowing Troutdale wind.

E-mails are a sensitive issue. There are times when a councilor will e-mail an article, an internet link, or other bit of information to all other councilors and city staff. But ongoing e-mail discussions with a quorum that could be construed as decision making don't happen, as far as I can tell.

I don't discuss sensitive issues via e-mail in my role as city councilor, except with the city attorney. I don't want my home PC involved in a public records search. Remember Nike and the City of Beaverton? Frightening. However, Troutdale city councilors should soon have city e-mail addresses. This will be a positive step. E-mail I send and receive while conducting city council business will end up sitting on the city's server and not on my home PC.

I've heard that once upon a time, previous Troutdale city council members did indeed decide issues prior to public meetings. There were many 7-0 votes. Some people say that 7-0 votes are a sign of a smoothly running city council. Consensus and all the huggy feely sentiments that go with that kind of thinking are, with all due respect to you consensus fans, a load of crap. A consistent pattern of unanimous votes is evidence that decisions are being made prior to a public meeting.

Troutdale's current city council has decided many issues on a 4-3 vote. The majority vote usually consists of a different mix of councilors, depending on the issue. Unlike the Multnomah County Commission, there's not a bloc of "mean" girls or boys that control every issue. I think this is good, though. I believe a 4-3 vote means that an issue's positive and negative aspects are deliberated and advocated more completely if a majority vote isn't a sure thing.

Except for quasi-judicial decisions, one on one conversations about specific agenda items prior to a public meeting are a legislative way of life. There isn't time in a public meeting to informally discuss issues one on one with a fellow councilor. I don't think this violates the letter or intent of open meeting laws.

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