Remember Sunshine Week? Last month? March 12 through 18? Ironically, it rained most of the week, and symbolically, it was ushered in with our other shared myth, daylight saving time.
Yup, I'm feeling cynical about our celebration of the laws that guarantee our right to watch the cogs of government turn. It’s because during Sunshine Week 2017, I learned that if even though the law guarantees transparency in government, it doesn’t mean you will always get it.
The Secretary of State’s website offers easily accessible information about public meeting laws, but that office does not offer enforcement, and whoever answered the phone when I called didn’t know who did. They suggested the attorney general, but no, it’s not them either.
Turns out that if your city government has violated public meeting law, like not recording or taking written minutes, there is no place to file a complaint. If an elected or appointed official (in Oregon almost always a citizen volunteer) violates an ethics rule the Oregon Government Ethics Commission will investigate and can levy fines. But if government staffers, well paid professionals, screw up — due to either corruption or incompetence — your only recourse is to file a claim in Circuit Court.
That’s right, if your city staff commits a crime you have to sue them in Circuit Court, which means pay an attorney. If you take your city to court you’re actually paying two lawyers, because your taxes would be paying the city’s attorney to defend against you. And if the court decides to fine the city, you and your neighbors would be paying that also.
Fun fact: According to the Oregon Bar Association, the majority of lawyers in Southern Oregon who have five to seven years experience charge more than $250 an hour, as of 2013.
Recently the Talent City Council approved four land use applications for one project. The Mail Tribune headline writer wrote that the decision raised the ire of citizens and that is correct; my ire is raised. I think the city staff screwed up the application process from the beginning, and the majority of the City Council exploited staff’s incompetence with a light-speed process not even thinly disguised as deliberative. Two councilors actually whined about having to listen to any discussion when they just wanted to vote yes and go home.
You might advise me to take my raised ire to the Land Use Board of Appeals. But, again with the lawyer. A friend of mine employed a land use lawyer for a LUBA appeal and spent more than $40,000, “to win what was already mine,” is how she put it.
Frankly, at this point in my life shelling out $200 an hour could impact the quality of the cat food I will be eating if the Republican Party has its way with Social Security and Medicare.
Please join me in contacting our legislators. Tell them that it’s the state’s job to enforce statutes and Oregon land use Goal One demands a system accessible to citizens at all levels.
— Joi Riley has lived in Talent for 23 years. She is currently a city planning commissioner.