Recently we encouraged Medford City Council members to trust their instincts and limit the number of times they use executive sessions to conduct public business in secret. Within days, a city councilor demonstrated the chilling effect of too much emphasis on secrecy when she refused to explain a vote she cast during a public meeting.
Clearly, the council was right to hold a study session to clarify the rules regarding executive sessions. Just as clearly, not everyone understands them yet.
On Thursday, the City Council and its members acting as the Medford Urban Renewal Agency board took a final vote on an agreement with the Housing Authority of Jackson County that involves trading MURA-owned property downtown for a portion of the Housing Authority's property on Spring Street where it will build a low-income housing complex. The agreement was approved, with Councilor Karen Blair voting no.
After the vote, Blair said she had "concerns" about the deal, but would not elaborate, saying she felt constrained from commenting further because the matter had been discussed in executive session.
Among other things, Oregon Public Meetings Law allows public bodies to hold executive sessions to discuss real property transactions. The rationale for a closed meeting is that publicity before a deal is made might affect the price and therefore the cost to taxpayers. If property owners know a municipality is in the market for real estate, asking prices are likely to go up.
In this case, the deal was a swap of a parcel already owned by MURA for a parcel already owned by the Housing Authority. It's hard to see how publicity would have affected the final agreement, but we'll concede that it meets the letter of the law permitting executive sessions.
Once the deal is done, however, and a vote is taken in an open meeting, there is no reason whatsoever that a city councilor should feel uncomfortable explaining why she thinks the deal is a bad idea. The executive session law merely allows a private discussion; it's not a gag order.
We previously have criticized City Attorney John Huttl for starting from a position of secrecy rather than a presumption of openness, which is the stated intent of the Public Meetings Law. Blair's reluctance to speak publicly on a topic no longer subject to executive session rules shows how pervasive that culture of secrecy can be.
Under Huttl's guidance, this City Council has become less transparent, and risks denying the public information it is entitled to under Oregon law. City councilors should take a stand for openness if they really want the public to understand how its business is being handled.