Tidings challenges council rule change

The Ashland City Council could vote as soon as tonight on a proposal that would prohibit individual councilors from commenting to the media on what is discussed in closed-door executive sessions.

The Ashland Daily Tidings has vowed to challenge the change should the city approve it, according to Editor Andrew Scot Bolsinger.

The city council meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

Aimed at preventing the city's business and legal strategies from being leaked to the general public, the provision is a part of the City Council's proposed rules that members have been working on for about a year.

City Councilor Kate Jackson said it would be well for the council not to discuss most of what is talked about in closed executive sessions, which are reserved for discussing such things as litigation, city personnel issues and pending real estate transactions.

"When the council is ready to take action on something that we discussed in executive session, we take action in the (open public) meeting after the session," Jackson said, noting that leaks can compromise the city's competitive edge in such things as negotiating land deals.

She suggested in an interview that the council could, as a compromise, draft a list of items that councilors may, at their discretion, discuss with the press, similar to the policy of city councilors in Klamath Falls.

Under Oregon's unusual executive session law, journalists are allowed to sit in on the session but not report on its proceedings unless one of the officials discusses it on the record outside of the executive session.

The Council's proposed rule states: "Councilors and staff should not discuss executive session matters with the press following adjournment of the executive session, because to do so may permit the press to report on the matter."

Councilor Alice Hardesty, who called law "bizarre," said at Monday night's Council work session that she supports an even stronger rule language, changing "should not" to "shall not" discuss with the media.

Mayor John Morrison did not return repeated calls for comment.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said the rule, if enacted, would not change how the City Council conducts business. Already, she said, councilors are informally prohibited from discussing the sessions.

Adopting a formal rule would provide "clarity" for this and future councils, Bennett said in a telephone interview Monday.

"The whole reason to have executive sessions is to talk about stuff that for whatever reason you can't talk about in public," she said. "The confidential stuff needs to stay confidential."

Bennett said that the media's presence during executive session is not so it may report on legal discussions that need to be carried out behind closed doors, but to ensure that councils are not abusing their private sessions by discussing business that should be conducted in public.

"There is nothing nefarious or ill-intentioned in the language," Bennett said of the proposed rule.

The Tidings, however, contends that the directive would stymie its ability to report on the workings of the council and could stifle individual councilors' free speech rights.

Bolsinger said in an interview that he is increasingly concerned about what "seems to be less and less of a commitment to openness" in Ashland city government. "This might help them, but it doesn't help the public and it doesn't help the councilors do their job of representing the people," Bolsinger said of the proposal. "They don't work for each other; they work for the people that voted them into office."

The rule, if adopted, would set the stage for a legal challenge by the newspaper, Bolsinger said.

"This is an issue of very high importance to the public and to the way we do our business," Bolsinger said. "Hopefully, we can work something out, but we will challenge this as far as we can" if needed.

In a letter from City Hall reporter Vickie Aldous to Bennett and Assistant City Attorney Richard Appicello, the Tidings suggested compromise rule language that read: "At his or her discretion, the mayor, councilors or city staff members may discuss details of executive sessions with members of the media."

Jack Orchard, legal counsel for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, said any member of the City Council is able to speak openly with the media regarding executive sessions. Likewise, he added, each councilor has the discretion to not speak to the press.

"Each person is elected individually by the citizens of Ashland. They are independent of each other," Orchard said, adding that councilors should not have their free speech rights fettered.

"It's curious for a community that portrays itself to the outside world as transparent, liberal and open to do that," Orchard said.

The Tidings also opposes a compromise offered by city staff that the council may designate a councilor, the mayor or a city staff member to discuss appropriate details of an executive session with the press.

The Tidings believes the change would restrict its ability to talk to any elected official or city staff member of its choosing.

"This rule is taking something that is by definition an individual activity &

that of serving as an elected official &

and trying to make it work as a collective," Bolsinger said. "The bottom line is these changes will lead to more city business being done behind closed doors, without accountability to the voting public."

Orchard said the compromise language does not conform to Oregon's public meetings law. He recommended the Tidings initiate discussions with the Oregon Department of Justice about possible legal violations if the City Council adopts the changes.

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.

Share This Story