Medford City Council members defended themselves Thursday against any suggestion that they are conducting the public's business in secret.
The issue came up recently when the council conducted extensive executive sessions to discuss a compromise deal over a low-income apartment complex proposed by the Jackson County Housing Authority as well as a proposal for corporate offices around the Evergreen parking garage.
"Those meetings are not secret — the press is present," Councilor Bob Strosser said. "These meetings are not something that inhibit us from making generalized comments."
The press and the City Council are admonished during executive sessions that they cannot discuss the proceedings in public.
Strosser said the council voted on Nov. 15, 2012, to lift the gag order so that councilors and the Medford Urban Renewal Agency board could openly discuss the Housing Authority proposal.
However, Councilor Karen Blair said she felt constrained from commenting on her dissenting vote on the Housing Authority compromise because of her perception of executive session rules.
Strosser specifically questioned a recent Mail Tribune editorial that criticized City Attorney John Huttl for advocating less transparency in city government.
Strosser said it is up to the council to decide whether it should speak on an issue. In most cases, it's important for councilors to express the reasons behind their votes, he said.
"We can even vote to suspend the gag rule, and we did," he said.
Councilors Dick Gordon and Chris Corcoran supported Strosser's position.
"On the surface, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Strosser," Corcoran said.
Councilor Dan Bunn said he recently took an ethics course as part of his training for the council. Huttl's positions on executive sessions and public meetings are in lockstep with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, Bunn said.
Mail Tribune Editor Bob Hunter said the newspaper was not accusing the council of holding illegal meetings, but was concerned that the city attorney's stated preference is for confidentiality and nondisclosure.
"That's really directly opposite of the spirit of Oregon's Public Meetings Law," Hunter said. "This state has always prided itself on keeping its public meetings and records as open as possible."
Hunter said the newspaper editorial board's biggest issue came when Huttl advised council members they should not speak about any aspect of a specific topic — new development at the Evergreen parking structure — after it came up in an executive session.
"The council was within its rights to hold an executive session on the topic," Hunter said, "but we feel Mr. Huttl went too far in trying to place a permanent gag order on the council members, telling them they essentially could never speak about it. That is a secrecy standard that would be unique in the state of Oregon, as far as we can tell."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.