The public has a right to know

Our ability to be the eyes and ears of the city will be blinded and found mute if the Ashland City Council adopts proposed language in its council rules.

The issue at hand is public comment after executive sessions. The entire topic is inside baseball to local governments and the news organizations that cover them. This isn't flashy stuff, but highly relevant to city voters.

For those keeping score at home a quick primer is in order.

City governments are allowed by Oregon law to meet privately in executive sessions to discuss specific issues deemed sensitive enough to warrant protection from public scrutiny. Examples include real estate transactions and personnel issues. Reporters are allowed to monitor the proceedings but cannot use it for publication, unless someone discusses it on the record outside of the executive session. The laws create a check and balance on both council and the media.

Concerning executive sessions, Oregon Revised Statutes say "the governing body may require that specified information subject of the executive session be undisclosed."

The key word is "may." Public officials who respect and value the public's right to know insist as little business as possible is conducted in executive session. But, obviously many politicians find this intrusive and seek ways around these strict laws and away from public scrutiny.

The language in the draft Ashland council rules, with which we take issue, says: "Unless authorized by the full Council, the Mayor and City Councilors must maintain the confidentiality of the information discussed in executive sessions ...

"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."

Putting aside the obvious lack of clarity &

"must" and "should" mean two different things &

the proposed ruling breaks the spirit of the Oregon statute by taking away an individual councilor's own judgment about whether a topic should be released to the public. It limits staff from speaking about the topics and installs a road block to stories about which reporters believe the public has a right to know.

In essence, the law would force the council to speak with one voice on issues of executive session &

if it decides to ever speak at all &

something the very nature of a representative form of government discourages.

This direct violation of free speech should cause anyone alarm, particularly council members themselves.

While the intent behind these rules may be in the best interest of council politics, it is not in the best interest of the public. Admittedly, city government does not run like a business, which inherently makes for a bumpier road. But freedom of information laws safeguard the public. Representatives of that public, placed there by those voters, should be wary of trifling with them.

Ashland was once known for its commitment to openness. Its city recorder won an award of note for her efforts to better inform the public by using the Internet to make more information readily available to the public. But in recent years we have expressed our increasing concern about the council's shift toward secrecy. This law would codify that shift while damaging the city's reputation for doing its business openly.

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