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Take time on meetings law.

Byline: The Register-Guard

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski has agreed, wisely, not to pursue an immediate update of Oregon's Open Meetings Law.

Instead, organizations with an interest in the issue will discuss possible revisions, and they may offer proposals to the Legislature next year. Any improvements or clarifications to the law requiring that government decisions be made in public deserve more careful consideration than could be provided in the hurry-up pace of the current legislative session.

Prozanski's interest in revisions stems from last year's case in which Coos County Circuit Court Judge Michael Gillespie ruled that Lane County commissioners had violated the Open Meetings Law by holding private deliberations that led to the approval of a supplemental budget.

Violations ordinarily occur when a quorum of a public body meets in secret or without public notice. Commissioners Rob Handy, Pete Sorenson and others involved in the Lane County case never were shown to have gathered in sufficient number to form a quorum. But Gillespie ruled that their serial deliberations were meant to lead to a decision outside of public view and therefore constituted willful violations. By the time the full Board of Commissioners met, those who had deliberated in advance had an agreement in hand - and both the public and potentially dissenting commissioners had been frozen out.

Prozanski asked Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson to review Gillespie's ruling. Johnson's analysis concludes that a quorum is necessary for a violation of the law to occur.

"The evidence supports Handy's actions as being motivated to avoid public meetings and the evidence supports Sorenson's knowledge that such actions might be viewed as violating the spirit of the public meetings law. We conclude, however, that the reasoning of the court does not support the conclusion that a public meetings law violation occurred in the first place."

The conflict between Gillespie's and Johnson's interpretations never will be resolved in this particular case, which was settled without appeal at considerable cost to county taxpayers. If Johnson is correct, it is perfectly legal for members of a governing body to meet one-on-one in private before a public meeting, producing decisions that are wired in advance, as long as there's no quorum. If Gillespie is correct, officials violate the law when they act in ways designed to defeat its purposes, even if they don't all gather in the same room.

Either way, the public's interest in open government could use some legislative attention. Johnson's reading of the law opens the possibility of pro-forma public meetings held only to ratify decisions already made in serial private consultations. And although the conduct involved in the Lane County case was extreme, Gillespie's ruling raises questions about what types of discussions can occur in private between and among public officials.

Prozanski has asked representatives of media, civil liberties and government groups to work with him on public meetings issues. There is clearly work to be done - the Open Meetings Law last was revised in 1979, before the advent of e-mail and other modern forms of communications. Do officials form a quorum when then follow each other on Twitter, friend each other on Facebook, or forward an e-mail to everyone on their mailing list?

Answering such questions won't be easy. A rush job by lawmakers would risk eviscerating the Open Meetings Law, or gagging public officials who need the freedom to have informal conversations with colleagues.

In the meantime, Oregon's hundreds of city councils, school boards and other public bodies manage to fulfill their duties without getting into the kind of trouble that landed Lane County officials in court, so there's no urgency here.

Prozanski is right to take his time.
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Title Annotation:Editorials and Letters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 10, 2012
Words:605
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