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City officials: Private meeting within laws

A closed-door meeting of the City Council at Mayor John Stromberg's house on Sunday did not violate public meetings law, according to City Attorney Richard Appicello and City Recorder Barbara Christensen.

Stromberg said he hosted the meeting so that councilors could get to know each other better and talk about how they will communicate with each other.

Appicello said that the Attorney General's Manual states that government bodies can meet to have training sessions that are not subject to public meetings law. For example, he said they can talk about improving their personal interactions with each other, but they cannot talk about the official business of the city.

Appicello, Christensen and City Administrator Martha Bennett attended the meeting of the mayor and council members.

"Frankly, that's why I was there — to make sure they did not stray into substantive issues," Appicello said.

He said at one point someone said they should talk about whether to amend council rules. Appicello said he spoke up and said that issue could not be discussed.

The mayor and council members talked about the sessions communications trainer Rick Kirschner had with former mayor John Morrison and the previous City Council beginning in 2007.

As Ashland's new mayor, Stromberg did not receive the communications training, which cost the city $37,000. New Councilors Greg Lemhouse and Carol Voisin also did not receive the training.

Appicello said it was legal for the current mayor and council to discuss what others learned from the training because they were not talking about whether to hire someone to provide training.

Christensen said she made sure that the meeting was legal and that the discussion did not delve into city business.

"I'm a stickler for meeting rules. If I had thought there was something said that was not appropriate, I would have spoken up," she said.

Christensen said much of the conversation centered on councilors getting to know each other on a personal level.

"Anytime there's an opportunity to get to know each other better, it's worthwhile. In the long run, it helps you see the other person as a person," she said.

As a new council member and police officer with the Medford Police Department, Lemhouse said he checked with Appicello, Christensen and Bennett to make sure meeting privately at the mayor's house was legal.

"It was something I needed to be clear on," Lemhouse said. "We didn't speak on any community issues. It was an opportunity to get to know each other. If we'd have gotten into those issues, I would have objected and not been a part of it."

Lemhouse said he didn't hear any concepts from the communications training with Kirschner that he hasn't been exposed to already, such as the belief that people in leadership positions need to work together as a team.

But he said getting to know the mayor and other councilors on a personal level was worthwhile.

"I thought it was productive. It's good to get to know each other better," Lemhouse said.

Fellow new Councilor Carol Voisin said she also appreciated the chance to get to know other city leaders in an informal setting.

"It was valuable. It was helpful," she said.

Voisin said she hopes the presence of the city attorney and city recorder at the meeting on Sunday will legitimize the meeting in the eyes of the public.

After hearing about the communications training with Kirschner, Voisin said she will keep in mind that two council members may contact each other to talk, especially when they are having disagreements.