Medford City Council members expressed frustration Thursday at being hamstrung by closed-door meetings that prevent them from conducting the public's business in public.
Councilor Karen Blair said she feels so constrained by rules regarding executive sessions that she finds it difficult to speak about issues that come before the council later in open sessions.
"I'm extremely uncomfortable with executive sessions and the number of them that we have," Blair said, noting that councilors often stray off topic during the closed-door meetings.
The council held a study session on public meetings laws and executive sessions, partly because Councilor Bob Strosser raised concerns about members discussing topics among themselves outside of public meetings. Other members have expressed frustration at the number of executive sessions they hold to discuss such topics as legal actions, real estate transactions or employee matters.
Generally, public bodies should limit the discussion during executive sessions to the topic at hand, according to the Oregon public meetings law. Any decisions or policy statements must be made in an open session.
Councilors and city staff indicated they would be more vigilant in the future in keeping executive sessions focused on the issue at hand.
Strosser said "serial communication," where one council member discusses a city matter with a number of others in succession, has concerned him recently.
Strosser said conversations among councilors is probably appropriate in some instances, but he said the danger is that too many of these conversations could give the public and news media the impression that the council is trying to circumvent public meeting laws.
"My biggest concern is the embarrassment to the City Council," Strosser said.
Councilor Al Densmore asked City Attorney John Huttl his opinion on the appropriateness of council members discussing issues outside of public meetings. "Is that or is that not legal?" he asked.
"It's a big if," Huttl responded. He said it depends on the intent of the discussions, and whether a group of elected officials is trying to reach a decision outside of a public meeting.
Huttl explained public meetings laws to councilors and also explained his position on how much information could be divulged after an executive session.
He said he generally leans toward nondisclosure in sensitive discussions between the city and other parties, particularly when litigation, contracts or real estate transactions are on the line.
"My default is for maintaining confidentiality and secrets," he said.
Huttl has instructed councilors not to publicly discuss topics brought up in executive session until after they've been addressed in an open session. Even after the council has voted on a topic, the discussions in executive session are generally off-limits, Huttl said.
Two recent high-profile topics include the corporate offices proposed around the Evergreen parking garage and the low-income apartments proposed on Spring Street and in downtown Medford.
The Mail Tribune recently has raised issues with the city about executive sessions, maintaining that if the council strays off topic for too long the meeting becomes fair game for a story.
In one recent instance, the council received extensive information about plans to develop a playground at Liberty Park during an executive session. The topic of discussion was supposed to be about a real estate transaction related to the park. Several days later, the Liberty Park playground plans were discussed in an open meeting of the Medford Parks and Recreation Commission.
According to the Oregon Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual, "A news reporter has a clear right to disclose any matter covered in an executive session that is not properly within the scope of the announced statutory authorization of the executive session."
Bob Hunter, editor of the Mail Tribune, spoke before the council Thursday on the newspaper's position on public meetings laws.
He said later that the council should strive for openness in conducting the public's business.
"There are certainly circumstances in which an executive session is warranted — personnel issues come to mind — but the council or any other public body should err on the side of being as open as possible," he said. "After all, the public really is their ultimate boss, and when they go behind closed doors the public is left to wonder what's going on."
The constraints over executive sessions have bothered councilors for some time. Even during executive sessions, they have questioned the rationale for the executive session, particularly when many of the details discussed already have been revealed in a public meeting.
Councilor John Michaels said he is uncomfortable with executive sessions that begin by imposing severe limits on what a councilor can say because of some agreement with a third party.
"Several times I've felt constrained by the attorney-client privilege," Michaels said.
Councilor Dick Gordon said he thinks the city too often finds reasons to discuss matters in executive session rather than in an open meeting.
"I really like Oregon's public meeting laws," he said. "We need to conduct as much of our business as we can at our (public) meetings."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.