A good opportunity to debate and seek solutions regarding the impact of Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions in Eastern Oregon was missed last week when top elected leaders from seven counties staged an unannounced meeting in Prairie City.
Ostensibly, the meeting was labeled an “information seminar” and was organized by Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson. At its base, the aim of the meeting — to discuss what is perceived as a disconnect between Brown’s administration, the state health care authority and rural residents — was a good one. Clearly there does exist a chasm of misunderstanding between the governor’s actions regarding COVID-19 and how those decisions impacted rural communities. Elected lawmakers should, indeed, convene to discuss and debate the concerns of their constituents.
The problem — and make no mistake, it is a problem — is the session was essentially planned and, initially, executed in secret. The meeting was not announced to the public. There was no agenda released through area newspapers informing voters of the purpose of the meeting. That means, then, that duly elected leaders — regardless of their motives — thought it proper to meet and discuss important issues without allowing their bosses — the voters — know about it.
For most on the lunatic fringe of the political spectrum across our nation — and in Eastern Oregon — such niceties are not that big a deal. Who cares, the thinking may go, if a group of elected leaders meet in secret and discuss issues that are pertinent? If the problem gets solved, it doesn’t matter.
The challenge to that type of thinking is it doesn’t fit the philosophy of a democratic government. Regardless of the issue, despite what may or may not splash across the front pages or the television screen, democracy and its rules endure. Democracy does not pardon secrecy with elected officials.
The two members of the Grant County Court at the meeting constituted a quorum, and they were deliberating on matters of county business. Oregon law is clear: “All meetings of the governing body of a public body shall be open to the public … (and) a quorum of a governing body may not meet in private for the purpose of deciding on or deliberating toward a decision on any matter…”
For the Grant County commissioners, this private meeting follows other missteps regarding public meetings in response to COVID-19. The commissioners approved a budget of $125,000 for the Emergency Operations Center with a plan to reassess in 45 days, but the EOC spent almost $200,000 before going back to county court well after the 45 days were up. We know this because public meeting laws require minutes be kept, and this is documented in the official minutes.
The commissioners voted that EOC expenditures over $200 would need to be brought before the county court for approval. Again, this is in the required meeting minutes. However, thousands of dollars in expenses over $200 were authorized without approval by the county court. The public missed the opportunity to hear deliberations about these expenditures.
The commissioners said it was an emergency, but that does not negate the need to follow public meeting laws.
The law addresses emergency situations and allows emergency meetings, but it still requires a good faith effort to provide notice. It specifies that minutes must still be taken at an emergency meeting, and if one is held with less than 24 hours notice, the minutes must “describe the emergency justifying less than 24 hours’ notice.”
The law outlines that telephone or online meetings can also be held, but they must follow all of the other public meeting requirements, and the public must be given a place where they can listen to the meeting at the time it occurs.
When Oregon’s public meeting laws were drafted, the legislators knew the governing bodies would face emergencies, and they allowed flexibility to deal with them. Given that the laws address emergencies, citing an emergency is not a great excuse for ignoring these important laws that ensure public access.
For transparency in government actions for the public, and for holding government officials accountable, public meetings are absolutely essential. Public meeting laws ensure the public can be informed and participate in their government.
As the foundation of democracy, we hope our public officials will remember the public when planning future meetings.