State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Neotsu, says he has absolutely no intention of reducing public access to public process. But his bill, House Bill 2931, would do just that.
It would deny journalists access to closed-door executive sessions if they do not “ordinarily and customarily report news on matters under consideration by the public body.” That would mean unless a media organization regularly reports on actions of the public body the public body could decide to exclude them.
In Oregon, the news media can attend executive sessions. Journalists act as watchdogs. They ensure the public body is not making decisions in secret, among other things. HB 2931 would make that harder.
Consider an example. Let’s assume a reporter from The Bulletin wanted to cover a meeting of the Harney County judge and commissioners during a tense occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The judge and commissioners march into executive session. Under HB 2931, the county could bar The Bulletin reporter from attending because The Bulletin does not usually report on the Harney County Court. That is not an improvement in the law.
Don’t think for a second that public bodies don’t already try to exclude journalists. On Aug. 13, 2013, a joint committee from the Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District was meeting to make policy recommendations on the future of Mirror Pond. A Bulletin reporter and editorial writer showed up to report on the meeting. Bend Park & Recreation District Executive Director Don Horton ordered them to leave. Attorneys for both public bodies later said the meeting should have been open to the public. Who knows what happened at that meeting?
HB 2931 has other problems. It also would require each news organization seeking to attend to an executive session to adhere to ethical standards without clearly defining what the ethical standards are. That lack of clarity is a mistake.
When we talked to Gomberg about his bill, he told us he was simply trying to fix some parts of the law. “Journalism is changing more quickly than our rules,” he said. It was introduced on behalf the League of Oregon Cities, though the bill fails to identify that.
For instance, one statement in the bill makes it clear that journalists should include nontraditional media, such as bloggers. Scott Winkels of the League of Oregon Cities said another intent of the bill is to clarify that people with a connection to a matter in executive session can not attend that session.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has already clarified both those points in a written opinion. Gomberg and Winkels told us they would look again at the language in the bill. “Bills evolve,” Gomberg said. They should just pull it from consideration.