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Ashland council avoids policy defining which media can access private meetings

Erik Neumann

The Ashland city council declined to create a policy on Monday night about which journalists should be allowed to attend executive session meetings that are closed to the public. Crafting such a policy would require answering the sometimes murky question of who should be considered a journalist.

The city council voted five to one not to consider a policy beyond state statute that allows reporters in Oregon to attend executive session meetings that are closed to the public where sensitive city business is discussed.

Councilors instead opted to create internal guidelines requiring reporters to submit their name, phone number, email address and the organization they work for in order to create accountability and ensure that sensitive information is not wrongly disseminated to the public.

On Jan. 18, reporters from the Ashland Chronicle and Ashland.news were excluded from a city council executive session meeting. That prompted City Attorney Katrina Brown to question whether the city should have a policy for who is admitted. Similar policies exist in Salem, Cottage Grove and Oregon City.

“The courts have not defined what the news media is in case law,” Brown said. “That’s why this is a really interesting area of the law, because it’s not well defined and the attorney general even goes and says it’s really on a case-by-case basis.”

In Oregon, journalists are allowed to attend executive session meetings by state statute, except in specific cases such as labor negotiations or discussions of litigation where the media is the subject of that litigation. Journalists are not allowed to report information from these meetings, however they can be used as a method to understand political processes.

But who is a legitimate journalist in an age of rapidly changing technologies, social media and outlets staffed by volunteer reporters is unclear.

“Whatever the problem is, is it worth the effort that would go into adopting and policing such a policy just so the city council can pick the journalists it feels comfortable with monitoring its behavior?” said Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling.

The idea of developing a clear criteria defining the news media while protecting transparency and press freedom quickly became unworkable during Monday night’s meeting.

Councilmember Tonya Graham voted against simply following state statutes, arguing that city staff does not currently have sufficient tools to judge what constitutes a member of the media during future executive session meetings.

“Our staff still doesn’t know what to do with them other than simply allow them in, if that’s what we’re telling them to do is simply let anybody come to executive session who says they’re a representative of the news media,” Graham said.

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins is also a longtime print and broadcast journalist. She argued that current state statute, which has been supported by the Oregon attorney general’s office, provided sufficient guidelines for who should be permitted into private meetings.

“I think that if we try to narrowly define or bring down some sort of a definition on what is legitimate news media, we do so at our own peril,” Akins said. “Because this is the body that is held accountable.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.