Medford City Council members who say they are concerned by closed-door meetings are on the right track. They should listen when their instincts tell them the council is being too secretive about the public's business. City Attorney John Huttl, on the other hand, sounds like he wants to turn the intent of the state's public meetings law on its head.
The council held a study session Thursday to discuss its use of executive (closed-door) sessions and to clarify what councilors may say in public.
"I'm extremely uncomfortable with executive sessions and the number of them that we have," Councilor Karen Blair said.
Huttl said his preference is to protect the discussion of sensitive topics such as litigation, contracts or real estate transactions.
"My default is for maintaining confidentiality and secrets," Huttl said.
But the "default" of the state public meetings law, to use Huttl's term, is precisely the opposite.
That law, on the books since 1973, begins with a policy statement: It is the intent of ORS 192.610 to 192.690 that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly."
The Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual notes that the courts have interpreted this to require a presumption of openness:
"In case of questions about the application of the Public Meetings Law to particular circumstances, the policy section of the law ordinarily will require a decision favoring openness," Attorney General John Kroger wrote in the most recent edition of the manual.
The law starts with that presumption of openness and then provides very specific circumstances under which a public body may hold an executive session and exclude the public. Those reasons include lawsuits against the body or litigation likely to be filed, labor negotiations and hiring or discipline of public employees, among others.
But permitting closed sessions does not mean requiring them. As the attorney general's manual notes, "A governing body may hold an open session even when the law permits it to hold an executive session."
Certainly, there are times when secrecy is advisable, such as when public disclosure could affect the price of a piece of property or the terms of a contract.
But there are also provisions of the law — such as the phrase "litigation likely to be filed," that can be stretched to justify a closed session on just about any topic. That violates the spirit of open government.
We don't fault the city attorney for wanting to protect the council from potential legal issues. That's his job, even if we may not agree with his approach.
But City Council members should remember that the city attorney works for them, not the other way around. He is there to provide advice, not to dictate policy.
Councilor Dick Gordon struck just the right note Thursday.
"I really like Oregon's public meeting laws," Gordon said. "We need to conduct as much of our business as we can at our (public) meetings."
We'll second that motion.