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Board: Don't read this.

Byline: The Register-Guard

On their way to denying Eugene Sand & Gravel's request for permission to open a gravel mine near River Road, a few members of the Lane County Board of Commissioners expressed unhappiness Tuesday about an editorial that appeared in The Register-Guard that morning.

Commissioner Bill Dwyer fretted that the editorial, which dealt with Eugene Sand's proposal, amounted to an "ex parte" contact, the likes of which board members are required to avoid in quasi-judicial proceedings. Commissioner Peter Sorenson opined that editorials dealing with quasi-judicial matters, as opposed to purely political questions, should not be published on the day of the decision.

The objections would be laughable, were it not for the fact that they betray the commissioners' misunderstanding of a newspaper's role and of their own.

Ex parte is a two-dollar Latin phrase that literally means "from a party," but can be translated as "from one side only." Our handy Latin dictionary explains that the phrase is "applied to a proceeding in which only one side of the case is presented, and the opposing side is absent. Naturally, there is the presumption of partisan testimony in an ex parte proceeding."

The Lane County Code states that the board "shall reasonably attempt to avoid" ex parte contacts in deliberations like the one involving Eugene Sand. Such contacts include "communication, directly or indirectly, with any person or their representatives in connection with any issue involved, except upon notice and opportunity for all interested persons to participate." The rule applies to staff members as well as members of the general public.

So there you have it: A newspaper editorial by definition favors one side of the case over the other, and is a direct communication prepared by people who are members of the general public. To subject board members to such an argument risks tainting their impartiality. Ergo, ipso facto, the newspaper should keep its mouth shut until after the board has laid the matter safely to rest, Q.E.D.

To arrive at this conclusion one must skip from one slippery assumption to the next, like boulders strewn across the stream of logic. To begin with, the newspaper does not represent any of the parties involved. Further, all interested people have had opportunities to participate in the newspaper's discussion - the gravel pit has been robustly debated in letters to the editor and in guest columns. The commissioners know these opportunities exist; all five have availed themselves of them. Finally, the code advises the board to avoid ex parte contacts. It does not demand that the rest of the world maintain a reverential silence while the board meditates in cloistered isolation.

The rules on ex parte contacts are meant to keep public officials from making back-room deals and basing decisions on secret information. Material published in a newspaper is the opposite of secret information. The rules are not meant to gag anyone - to the contrary, they're meant to ensure that the facts come to light. Sorenson, for his part, should not have feared that Tuesday's editorial would upset his equilibrium - the newspaper's position on Eugene Sand's proposal had been clear for months.

Sorenson and Dwyer voted against Eugene Sand's proposal, which the editorial supported. The influence of an editorial is evidently not as powerful as they feared. But perhaps it was not the editorial's influence that concerned them, but the opinion it expressed. After all, they did not complain about a guest column opposing Eugene Sand's proposal that appeared the day before.
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Title Annotation:It might be an 'ex parte' contact; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 8, 2001
Previous Article:Letters in the Editor's Mailbag.
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