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Councilors' criticism less troubling than secrecy

Comments from Medford City Council members about City Manager Eric Swanson's job performance indicate he has some work to do to repair relationships with at least a couple of councilors. In an interview with a Mail Tribune reporter, Swanson made it clear he gets the message. We're more concerned that the city still doesn't get the message about the importance of open government.

Overall, council members appeared satisfied with Swanson's performance, and the council plans to renew his contract. Swanson was hired in 2012 to replace Mike Dyal, who retired. Swanson previously was city manager in Roseburg for seven years.

While most council members complimented Swanson on his performance, one comment questioned whether he is "the best fit" for Medford. Another comment said Swanson had been abusive to a councilor who was asking questions, and said there was a perception that Swanson was attempting to "manage" the council through council officers rather than dealing with all councilors on an individual basis.

One comment suggested that Swanson had a domineering approach to managing city employees, firing department heads who disagreed with him. But another comment indicated one councilor was "very happy with Eric's leadership style," adding that the atmosphere at City Hall had changed for the better, and "everyone seems more relaxed."   

We don't know which council members made the comments, because councilors' names were redacted from the evaluation documents provided to the Mail Tribune. The city initially refused the newspaper's request for the documents, claiming they were exempt from disclosure under the state public records law.

The newspaper appealed to District Attorney Beth Heckert as provided for under the law. Heckert ruled that public interest in the job performance of the city's chief executive outweighed privacy considerations, but she allowed the city attorney to redact the council members' names.

That's a curious decision. City Council members are elected officials who hire the city manager and can fire him if they see fit. Making their comments public should not be a problem.

The initial refusal to release the documents reflects a continuing pattern of secrecy on the part of the city in carrying out the public's business. The council discussed Swanson's performance review in a closed-door executive session. A reporter attending that session as allowed by state law learned of the written evaluation and requested a copy.

State public records law is based on the presumption that everything government does ought to be public unless it is specifically exempted from disclosure in the law. An exemption does not require secrecy, it merely allows it.

It's worth noting that the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has evaluated County Administrator Danny Jordan's performance in open meetings. We see no reason why the City Council should not do the same.