State investigators are looking into a possible ethics violation by Prairie City officials.
The Oregon Government Ethics Commission voted 7-1 to investigate a possible violation of Oregon’s executive session law by Mayor Jim Hamsher and Councilors Carole Garrison, Georgia Patterson, Les Church, Frank Primozic and Joe Phippen Jan. 5. Oregon law provides a narrow list of matters that entities may discuss in private, outside of open session, if proper notice is given, but no final decisions may be made.
Commission investigator Michael Thornicroft told the Prairie City officials the possible violation did not appear to be intentional, in a Jan. 2 letter provided by Hamsher.
“Should the Commissioners vote to move this matter to an investigation, my recommendation to the Director and the Commissioners will be that this matter be settled with a Letter of Education and not a fine,” Thornicroft wrote. “It appears from the Preliminary Review that the Executive Session was done in good faith and it does not appear that anyone intentionally violated Executive Session provisions.”
Prairie City resident Dan Becker said he filed the complaint after an August city council meeting where an executive session was held that was not included on the agenda. After the executive session, he said, the council reconvened in open session and voted to give a raise to the city public works director.
He said he filed the complaint in November to get the attention of the council without causing financial hardship to the city, in hopes of getting them to obey open meeting laws.
“They need to allow the public an opportunity to know what they’re going to be discussing,” Becker said.
Oregon law requires public bodies to provide at least 24 hours notice for meetings, except in the case of an actual emergency. An executive session notice must include the “specific statutory provision(s) authorizing the executive session,” according to the Attorney General’s Public Records and Meeting Manual 2014.
Hamsher said a city employee requested to discuss personnel matters in executive session right before the meeting, and the council “didn’t want to take the chance of talking about personnel matters we could get sued over.” He said, at the time, they believed the matter was a labor negotiation — which is allowed as an executive session if negotiators from both sides request it to be, and which is the only executive session allowed without public notice — before learning labor negotiations were related to unions.
Hamsher, who is running for county judge in the upcoming election, said he believed the ethics complaint was politically motivated.
“I think bringing this up at this point is just trying to smear the city,” he said. “It’s just a way to slander me before the election.”