Keep Bend city government in the open

Guess what topic the city of Bend scheduled for a meeting behind closed doors? Just the prickliest, and nearly the most expensive project before the City Council: Bend’s surface water project.

Even in a slimmed-down version, the project was going to cost $23 million.

The city has been holding orientation sessions for new city councilors scheduled to take office in a couple of weeks. The city held sessions covering legal issues, ethics, public meetings, land use issues, system development charges, dealing with the public and more. Those meetings have been clearly announced and open to the public.

But only after the agenda for the latest meeting was passed on to the editorial board on Monday and we started asking questions about it did the public become welcome on Tuesday.

City Manager Eric King told us in an email on Monday that the briefing was “more or less an extension of the orientation sessions we’ve (been) providing to the newly elected Councilors as background information on the myriad of issues the City is tackling.”

He said it was not noticed because a quorum of city councilors would not be present.

That’s correct under Oregon law. But at least according to the agenda we got, five out of the seven members of the 2013 council were planning to be there. Indeed, five showed up. That’s a quorum of the city’s future decision makers gathering to discuss one of the most important challenges facing the city.

The meeting was scheduled to cover the basics of how the city’s water system works. It did that.

“We didn’t want to get into risks, values and assumptions,” King told the meeting Tuesday, because that should be a discussion for the whole council.

Of course, it did get into that. It became a larger discussion about the surface water project — water rights, legal risks, demand for water, pipe diameters and more.

After a news article in The Bulletin on Tuesday about the meeting, more than a handful of the public showed up. One could imagine what it might have been like if the public had been invited.

City officials and staff know that the public is interested and concerned about this project. Councilors and staff have said the city has not done a good job of communicating about the water project.

That makes it all the more unbelievable that this meeting was headed behind closed doors. Councilors and staff deserve credit for opening this meeting up, but the new council should enforce open government from the start.