The Sweet Home City Council is in the midst of getting a somewhat painful lesson on the details of Oregon's Open Meeting Law, the law that helps ensure that bodies such as the council can't meet out of sight of the public they serve.
Here's the background: Back in January, Sweet Home (and all of Linn County, really) got a shot of legitimately great news: This year's Capitol Christmas Tree would be harvested from the Sweet Home Ranger District. The tree will be cut in November and will begin the 3,000-mile journey to Washington, D.C., where it will be dedicated and officially lit in a ceremony the first week of December.
Sweet Home has embraced this: The community and the council have worked together to craft 10,000 ornaments for the main tree and for 70 other smaller trees that are destined to decorate other federal offices.
So it stands to reason that a number of Sweet Home residents are planning to travel to Washington for the events surrounding the dedication.
Here's where matters get tricky for the seven-person Sweet Home City Council. The city's official delegation to Washington will include three people who serve on the council: Mayor Greg Mahler, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Trask and councilor Sue Coleman. (In Sweet Home, the mayor and mayor pro tem are voting members on the council.)
Other councilors would like to attend as well: Councilor Lisa Gourley has announced plans to attend the event as a private citizen.
Simple math suggests the problem here: Having four members of the seven-member council present in Washington represents a quorum. When a quorum of a public body gathers in one place, it is able to take action. That's why the law requires that such gatherings take place only with proper advance notice, and with items to be considered listed on an agenda — and with the public getting a reasonable opportunity to observe.
Realistically, we don't think that the assembled council would take any sort of action when gathered at Sweet Home. But here's the deal: It could, and that's where the rub kicks in. (At a meeting a couple of weeks ago, a councilor briefly suggested renting a house together in Washington, an idea that met a quick death.)
Other councilors noted that a majority of the council has been present at various social events, such as the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet. But even those sessions offer a risk, as the state's manual on the Public Meetings Law warns: “However, a purpose to deliberate on any matter of official policy or administration may arise during a social gathering and lead to a violation. Members constituting a quorum must avoid any discussions of official business during such a gathering. And, they should be aware that some citizens may perceive social gatherings as merely a subterfuge for avoiding the Public Meetings Law.”
At the council meeting this week, Gourley protested that she had not given up her First Amendment rights to speak and assemble when she was elected to the council. That's true, but that's not exactly on point.
As Gourley has undoubtedly discovered for herself every time she gets buttonholed by Sweet Home residents as she runs errands, she is not able to simply declare herself a "private citizen." To some extent, she gave up that status when she was elected to the council.
Is that fair? No, not entirely, especially considering that serving as a Sweet Home city councilor for all intents and purposes amounts to a volunteer position. (Councilors do receive a tiny stipend, but still.)
But it is a sacrifice that comes with the territory — and is part and parcel of a vitally important point: that government remain open and accessible to the people it serves. As councilors in Sweet Home are learning, that's a pain — but it's an essential pain.(mm)