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Ashland considers press appointee

ASHLAND — In an apparent compromise on a controversial proposed rule that would prohibit council members from disclosing information from executive sessions, the city on Tuesday will consider alternative language that would appoint one person to talk to the press.

The change was suggested by city staff after the Ashland Daily Tidings opposed the language in the original rule, saying it would stymie its ability to report on the workings of the council and could stifle individual council members' free speech rights.

Council members will consider this and other proposed rules governing their behavior at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

The new language concerning executive sessions states:

"At the conclusion of the executive session, the council may designate the mayor, any councilor, or a staff person to discuss appropriate details of the executive session that may be reported with members of the media."

The original language said:

"Councilors and staff should not discuss executive session matters with the press following adjournment of the executive session, because to do so may permit the press to report on the matter."

Under Oregon's Public Records Law, city councils may hold executive sessions, which are closed to the public, for specific topics, such as real estate transactions, personnel issues and threatened or pending litigation. The press is allowed to attend but not report on it.

Reporters can, however, use the information they've learned to question council members afterward.

Mayor John Morrison said the proposed rule against discussing such actions in public is "an advisory" found in the rules of many cities and is roundly agreed on by Ashland council members who "felt it is mild language that reflects a common practice that what's said there (in executive sessions) stays there."

Interim City Attorney Richard Appicello said state law does not prohibit public officials from talking about actions in executive sessions — and provides no penalties for journalists who reveal such actions — but errant officials can be subject to state laws against misuse of confidential information and official misconduct by public servants.

Keeping legal information confidential, said City Recorder Barbara Christensen, "is really important to protect the city from possible litigation and I honestly believe it's just a strong advisory. You can't stop people from speaking if they really want to. If they're going to talk, they're going to talk."

Editors of the Tidings and the Mail Tribune continue to oppose the rule, citing it as a step away from openness.

Tidings Editor Andrew Scot Bolsinger said the proposed rule is "one more way to codify the block to free expression" and the Tidings will consider legal action if it's passed.

Mail Tribune Editor Bob Hunter said state law defines executive session rules at great length without prohibiting public officials from disclosing what went on in private, "yet the city of Ashland for some reason sees fit to add on this rule that the state didn't feel was necessary."

Hunter called the proposed rule "a little slip down that slope, not a huge slide," but it could offer protection to a future council that, for example, tries to discuss a new tax in executive session, then enforces a rule that stops one member who wants to tell the public about it.

"There are many very good reasons that executive session material shouldn't be divulged and in most cases we're fine with that," said Hunter. "This is not us picking on the city of Ashland; it's us trying to keep the business of the public in public view as much as possible."

Morrison believes the Mail Tribune and Daily Tidings "seem to have an ax to grind and they have a conflict of interest on the issue, though I understand they have a job to do. But it's not the job of the city of Ashland to do their job for them. I just don't agree with them."

Council veteran Kate Jackson said state law already defines and protects the content of executive sessions and "every elected official in the state knows you're allowed to say what the discussion topic is, but "¦ anything with legal implications shall not be discussed publicly by a public official "¦ until it's settled."

Other proposed rules to be considered Tuesday govern council members' conduct toward each other and staff. The rules come after disruptive interruptions and name-calling during council meetings and accusations the council was micromanaging staff.

One proposed rule would prohibit "behavior or actions that are unreasonably loud or disruptive" and empower the mayor to eject members or even charge them with violation of state law prohibiting disruption of a lawful assembly.

Seeking to create a less formal category of council no-nos, Councilwoman Alice Hardesty is proposing a list of "Gentleperson's Agreements," including one that says all council members, commissioners and the public should be "courteous with each other, even when they disagree. Everyone should be reminded it is counterproductive to attack others in public."

The proposed rules call on council members not to assign tasks to city employees, but to direct them to the city administrator and keep it under two hours' work.

The logic behind this rule, said Jackson, is that "the council only has authority as a group, not as individuals" and many council requests for staff time have budget implications and should be requested by the whole council and tied to proposals under consideration.

Past confrontations of council members with city employees would be reined in by a proposed rule against publicly criticizing any employee. The danger, the rule says, is that such talk could be construed as an oral reprimand, violate the employee's rights and end up in court.

Acknowledging the difficulty of codifying behavior, Councilman David Chapman said everyone should know what criticism is — and not do it in public.

"You shouldn't criticize staff at public meetings and that does belong in the rules," Chapman said. "Criticism is wrong. You should counter, persuade and alter, and you can even disagree, but not attack."

After much criticism of long and repeated council meetings, the body also will consider a new rule limiting council members to five minutes and one turn on a topic, unless members give an extension.

For the complete rules, go to www.ashland.or.us, click on "Mayor and Council," then on the link "Council Business" in the middle of the page.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.