New Oregon legislation could increase accountability in public meetings
Public meetings are one way citizens find out what their local government is doing. But sometimes officials violate public meeting rules. Changes going into effect this month could create more accountability.
On Aug. 17, in Gold Beach, Oregon, the Curry County commissioners were set to have a routine meeting with the director of county operations. It was the kind of meeting where the commissioners would be briefed by the director on any number of things occurring within the coastal county’s departments — local taxing districts, contracts for road repairs, fire services.
But the public notice posted online for that meeting was surprisingly brief. After listing the date, time and location, the text read only: “the Board of Commissioners and Director of County Operations will have a meeting. The public is welcome to attend.” It was not the first time for the brevity.
“It was a mistake,” said Ted Fitzgerald, the director of county operations for Curry County, regarding the Aug. 17 notice. “I don’t know how that thing got listed.”
Fitzgerald explained that the meetings between the board of commissioners and himself are new, as is the person in the board of commissioners office who creates the notices. He said he was unaware that the agendas from this new type of meeting were being posted without topics until after they were up.
Oregon public meetings law states topics that are going to be discussed ought to be available as part of public notice, according to Melissa Hopkins, an attorney currently involved in a case in Yamhill County concerning these laws.
“There needs to be a list of principal subjects,” she said, while looking at the Aug. 17 notice. “I don’t see a list of principal subjects that the statute does clearly state needs to be included.” Additional unplanned subjects are allowed to be considered at a meeting, but she feels those instances should be “few and far between.”
If a member of the public can’t figure out what a meeting is going to be about, even if there is a list of topics, Hopkins questions whether actual “notice” has been provided under Oregon law. The Oregon Department of Justice states that a list of principal subjects should be specific enough that members of the public can recognize which topics they are interested in.
If people don’t know what their governing bodies are up to, it becomes difficult to provide input on their decisions and meaningfully oversee their process, said Rachel Alexander, the freedom of information chair for the Society of Professional Journalists Greater Oregon chapter.
“The whole point of a democratic government is that governing people are accountable to the citizens they serve and the people who elect them,” Alexander said. “That’s kind of a basic bedrock of American democracy at a lot of levels, from the local all the way up to the federal.”
Lack of enforcement
According to the Oregon Department of Justice, “public bodies” include the state, any regional council, any municipal or public corporation, or any agency of those entities, such as boards, departments and advisory groups. If two or more members of a public body can make decisions or recommendations to that body on policy or administration, then they are considered a “governing body.” This is who public meetings law applies to.
Public meeting notices help make meetings accessible. According to Oregon public meetings law, this notice must include the time, place and, as Hopkins said, a list of “principal subjects” to be considered.
“And that’s the heart of Oregon public meeting law, is that you should know what your governing body is doing,” Hopkins said. “[You] shouldn’t have to submit a public records request to see what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Currently, no state agency in Oregon enforces public meetings law outside of executive session — the part of a meeting that can be closed to the public. And the state does not require any training in public meetings law for employees of local governments.
The only real way for a citizen to hold a public official accountable for a potential public meetings violation outside of executive session is to sue. But that’s a step that is “far beyond the means of most individuals,” according to Oregon Rep. Nathan Sosa (D-Hillsboro).
A new era of accountability
Amendments to existing public meetings law developed by Sosa and others could add accountability for governing bodies in Oregon. HB 2805 was passed June 25 by the state legislature.
The law updates and toughens public meetings rules in a few key ways. It defines “convening” as a governing body to include electronic communication like video calls, phone calls and email chains between participants. It creates a training requirement for anyone on a governing body with expenditures over $1 million per fiscal year. And it creates a system of accountability for when violations do occur.
“Public officials are now going to really be held accountable for following the public meetings laws,” Sosa said, “and there are going to be real consequences if they don’t.”
If a member of the public spots what they think is a violation, they have 30 days to file a complaint with the public body in question. The public body then has 21 days to either acknowledge the mistake and lay out a plan to correct it — or deny that a violation took place.
Members of the public can then file a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, which enforces Oregon’s government ethics laws. The commission cannot currently enforce public meetings law outside of executive session, but with the enactment of this bill, they will have jurisdiction over all provisions of public meetings law.
The commission can issue a letter of education that essentially acts as a warning and a reminder that the commission is available to answer questions. For more egregious or repeat violations, the person who committed the violation is personally liable, and faces financial consequences of up to $1,000 based on the seriousness of the violation and whether or not they’ve received prior warnings.
Sosa said he hopes that the training requirement alone will address potential violations. Trainings are going to be widely available, he said, and offered through the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and through organizations like the League of Oregon Cities.
“When you become elected on city council, there’s no guidebook, right?” said Jayme Pierce, general counsel for the League of Oregon Cities, which is one of the groups that provides public meetings training, primarily for city officials. “There’s no, you know, prerequisite to become a city councilor as for classes you have to take or knowledge that you have to have about these different laws that now suddenly apply to you.”
HB 2805 will be fully implemented by the beginning of 2024, which will give public bodies the time to get staff trained. And if there is a violation, Sosa said he’s happy to know that citizens will soon have a mechanism to hold public officials accountable.
Ted Fitzgerald with Curry County said he was working to remedy his county’s incomplete agendas so the public knows what is being discussed.
“It doesn’t achieve anything for the public,” he said. “That’s why we’re not doing it anymore.”
About a week later, the Curry County commissioners Aug. 31 public meeting notice was posted. There were once again no subjects, instead the words “the Board of Commissioners and Director of County Operations will have a meeting. The public is welcome to attend.” Shortly after that, a second document was posted, titled “agenda.” It included a short list of general topics, including “human resources update,” “commissioner updates” and “other.”