Do you really have to close the doors?

"Council members agreed last week to discuss the nudity issue in a [closed-door] executive session"¦ 'The City Council needs to understand the legal risks, but we don't discuss that in public because that would essentially give people information about the best ways to file lawsuits against the city,' [Mayor] Stromberg wrote"¦"

— August 27 Tidings article

I'm an admirer of the mayor, in part because he seems committed to transparent and open government. But I'm not admiring this. Not because of the issue itself; though I've twice vented on it in earlier columns, it ranks low on the list of things I think and care about. I care much more about including the public in all stages of crafting policies that will apply to them, unless there's a clear compelling reason to exclude them. There isn't one here.

This might matter less if we weren't in the midst of recovering from eight years of national governance that openly sneered at the public's right to know. And it's not clear that very much has changed since Jan. 20. In almost every context that comes to mind, healing our public life calls for more, not less, openness in government.

So why do our little town's leaders want to close the doors this time? They say it's to protect the city's legal position. Oregon's rigorous Open Meetings Law makes clear exceptions when litigation or contracts are involved. The idea is that if you're fighting with someone in court, or negotiating a contract or real estate purchase, you don't want to lay all your cards out on the table while the other guy's holding his close to the vest. That makes sense. But there is no court case, present or pending, no lawsuit in sight. What city leaders seem to be saying is "let's not give any ammo to some naked clown who might want to sue us down the line," a hypothetical they could apply to just about any policy issue that's touchy (and how many aren't?) until the meeting room doors are closed as often as they're open. When that reasoning was questioned, city officials leaned on "attorney/client privilege." Since the city attorney wrote an advisory memo on the matter, they as clients have a right to review it with him in private. That sounds like another escape hatch from the law that could be used to close the doors pretty much at will.

I'm not interested or qualified to argue the legality of what the council's doing. But there's a much different way to go here that could prove their commitment to open government and possibly — possibly, not certainly — lead to fewer hassles than the path they're taking.

It's also simpler. Hold every single council conversation on public nudity policy in fully open sessions, in front of everyone who wants to listen. Say to us, Mr. Mayor, something like "Look: we represent people who want our town to be a place of fully open expression, where people can dress (or not) exactly as they choose, and we represent people who are seriously agitated by nudity in some public places. Our job is to strike the best possible balance between the two, within the framework of constitutional and statutory law. Come on in to hear and comment on our reasoning, and be sure to listen carefully to what our attorney's saying, because we intend to walk away with a policy that's legally bullet-proof, or as close as we can get."

One possible outcome would be a coronary for the city attorney. Making government transparent and building civic confidence is not part of his job description. But here's what I know: If I were someone itching to sue city government, that kind of clear, confident openhanded statement would deter me a lot more than anything created behind closed doors. I'd figure that if they had to strategize in secret, they must not be so sure they're on solid ground.

I vaguely understand why elected officials would rather speak their mind on nudity in private. And I remember my days as a county commissioner, when there seemed to be all kinds of good reasons to end-run open meetings requirements. I also remember how much weaker those reasons seemed after I left office

Whatever the impulse to close the doors is about (and it's about more than simply covering your political rear-end), it says you don't really trust the people you represent to understand the issue, to weigh its conflicting elements, to think clearly and well. There's evidence for that viewpoint — the antics at the health care town hall meetings come to mind — but it sure doesn't pave the way to a vibrant, healthy civic community.

Come on, council. We can handle this conversation. The whole naked truth.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts available at

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