This year could be the year Oregon’s public meetings law gets poked full of holes. There are at least two proposed changes in the hopper in Salem that could change the law for the worse.
One says that email communication does not constitute a meeting.
That change should be relatively harmless, but there is potential for abuse.
It would be ridiculous if city councilors or county commissioners had to declare a public meeting each time they emailed each other. Their emails can already be obtained through a public records request and that doesn’t change under this proposal.
One of the reasons for this legislative concept, though, is some tumult about what the law says.
A court found that Lane County Commissioners Pete Sorenson and Rob Handy violated the state’s public meeting laws in 2009.
The court said the commissioners held private, serial one-on-one meetings. It was for the purpose of deciding how to vote on aides for the commissioners.
There were never enough commissioners present during the meetings to constitute a quorum.
That decision caused some confusion about what is permissible. Emails are not the same thing as a meeting. But emails that get passed around could also be viewed as private, serial, one-on-one meetings. So it’s a good step to clarify the law’s intent.
At the same time, email sent within a quorum of board members could also be a deliberate attempt to evade the meaning of public meeting laws. Public officials should not use it that way.
The second proposed change is a legislative concept that says fact-gathering activities and on-site inspections of property are not public meetings.
This is trouble.
Imagine if all the members of the Bend City Council went around on fact-gathering activities as the basis for a new $60 million water project for the city. With the proposed change in the law, the council wouldn’t have to tell the public what it’s doing. The councilors may not ostensibly be making a decision or even deliberating toward a decision. They still would be doing something the public should know about.
The Legislature should not allow public meetings to become a sham where decisions have already been made behind closed doors.