The Oregon Government Ethics Commission recently found that the Prairie City Council violated the state’s public meetings law when it went into executive session Aug. 9 to discuss an employee’s salary.
In a preliminary finding to a citizen complaint, the commission concluded that sufficient information exists to indicate that a topic not authorized for consideration during executive session had been discussed by the council.
The council had discussed compensation for the city’s public works director, Chris Camarena, during the executive session, which was closed to the public other than news media, of which none were present that night.
The commission did not suggest a remedy for the violation, but in a Jan. 2 letter provided to the Eagle by Mayor Jim Hamsher, commission investigator Michael Thornicroft said his recommendation to the commission, based on his preliminary review of the matter, was that the matter “be settled with a Letter of Education and not a fine.”
Governing bodies can go into a closed-to-the-public executive session if the subject matter fits within a narrow list of exclusions allowed in the state’s open meetings law. No executive session was on the agenda for Prairie City’s Aug. 9 meeting.
According to the official minutes for the meeting, Camarena requested the executive session at 7:41 p.m. and handed his request to City Recorder/Treasurer Taci Philbrook.
The commission learned from an audio recording of the executive session that Hamsher read the required script used to announce an executive session, stating that the purpose of the meeting was to consider employment of an employee or individual agent and to conduct labor negotiations.
According to the recording, Camarena told the council during the executive session that he had been offered a higher-paying job by the city of Joseph, and they needed an answer in two days. No decision was made during the executive session, the commission learned from the recording.
When the council reconvened in open session about 20 minutes later, the official minutes state, a motion was made to increase Camarena’s annual salary to $72,000 in 2017 and to $75,000 in 2018 as long as he agreed to stay with Prairie City for five years without taking any offers from other cities. The motion passed unanimously.
Prairie City resident Dan Becker’s complaint about the executive session was received Nov. 9. He later explained that he wanted to get the attention of the council without causing a financial hardship and get them to obey the state’s open meeting laws.
Attending the executive session were Hamsher and Councilors Carole Garrison, Georgia Patterson, Les Church, Frank Primozic and Joe Phippen. They responded to Becker’s complaint in a Nov. 29 signed statement to the commission.
In their statement, the mayor and councilors said Philbrook notified Hamsher less than 30 minutes before the council meeting began “that she had arranged for an executive session to negotiate the employee’s new contract.”
“The mayor trusted that the recorder/treasurer had acted with due diligence on our behalf and that her information was correct,” the statement reads.
The commission did not address Becker’s complaint that proper notice was not given for the executive session, noting that the commission had no jurisdiction over that matter.
Citing the Oregon Attorney General’s Public Records and Meeting Manual, the commission found the Prairie City executive session was not authorized as a labor negotiation because those “take place only between employee representatives, such as labor organizations, and employers” and that discussion about an employee’s salary is not authorized under the exception for considering a person for employment.
“We have no other defense except to say that in the future we will make every effort to be better informed and consult the city attorney prior to future executive sessions,” the statement from the Prairie City officials concludes.