City must be more transparent
When Sherwood Mayor Keith Mays announced nonchalantly at a Jan. 15 City Council meeting that councilors had called a special meeting the week before to find a replacement for Sherwood's outgoing city manager, many people in the audience rushed to congratulate the city's new manager-to-be, Assistant City Manager Jim Patterson.
I, on the other hand, left the meeting with my mouth hanging open and my head shaking in disbelief.
It wasn't the council's choice that put me into such a tizzy - Mr. Patterson has been heading toward this position for years and it's not uncommon for a city to promote one of their own - but the city's seemingly blatant disregard for Oregon's Public Meetings law had my head spinning the rest of the night and well into the next afternoon.
That's when I decided to get some outside advice. I had already looked up the state laws and triple checked my voicemail and e-mail to make sure I hadn't somehow overlooked the notification the city is required to send before holding an emergency/special meeting or executive session.
When I couldn't find any such notification, I called the legal hotline for members of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and told an attorney who is an expert on this state's open meeting laws exactly what had gone down in Sherwood.
He confirmed my suspicions that the city council had most likely violated the law, but he wasn't surprised to hear that this was happening in Sherwood. Apparently, this little town is well known for its behind-closed-doors style of politics.
As this attorney put it 'they still think they can make all of their decisions over coffee in the morning.'
I say it's time to turn around this city's image.
What the city council did - calling an emergency meeting to discuss the retirement of a city manager who wasn't even scheduled to retire for another seven months - could, by itself, easily be seen as a violation of state law. Emergency and special council meetings are for major events - for instance, if a tsunami has just wiped out the city's major highway then, yes, by all means, call your emergency meeting, but you still have to give notice!
Simply wanting to hurry a decision on a position that won't be vacant for more than half a year doesn't qualify as an emergency by anyone's standards. That the councilors actually passed a list of criteria for hiring a new city manager during this 'special' meeting makes it even worse.
But the fact that the council didn't give the media at least 24-hours advance warning for this meeting is a definite violation of the law. And then there are the two executive sessions Sherwood councilors called to discuss this matter and to interview their one and only candidate for the most powerful job in the city.
When I brought this up with the mayor, a person who has always seemed like a reasonable enough guy, he became defensive.
'Council was ready to make a decision and so the decision was made,' Mayor Mays told me just before accusing me of digging for a scandal and telling me 'off the record' that people don't like the Gazette since I took over.
Well, sticks and stones mayor, but I still want to know why Sherwood leaders think they can disregard the law and get away with it.
Now, I'm fully aware that some of you might be saying, 'Well, what's done is done, so does it really matter?'
Simple answer: Yes.
Long answer: This is bigger than the Sherwood City Council. Having an open, transparent government is critical to a democracy and the last time I checked, we were still living in a democracy.
Here's what a recent Los Angeles Times editorial said about an appellate court's ruling that tossed out a challenge to the federal government's warrantless surveillance program: 'Government secrecy is unfortunately sometimes necessary, but it is so fundamentally at odds with the precepts of an open democracy that when it's employed, it has a way of getting out of hand.'
In other words, even on a small scale like the Sherwood City Council, if we allow government officials to trample the laws that are meant to make government more transparent, and then let them hide behind flimsy excuses like 'we just wanted to make that decision now and so we made it,' we're just setting ourselves up for more of the same.
Open meeting laws and open records laws are designed to protect you, the public. When government officials violate these laws they are violating the public's trust. And having a public that trusts and respects you can go a long way. When the public distrusts its government, it's pretty hard for that government to pass new taxes or get support for major projects that will need to be paid for through bond measures.
Do you really want to have your elected officials and the people they've hired to run the city of Sherwood making decisions that will affect your quality of life - not to mention the contents of your bank account - behind closed doors?
If so, then stop reading. If not, here's what you can do:
Hold Sherwood's leaders accountable. Attend city council meetings or planning commission meetings. Speak up when you have a concern. I hear from so many of you each week and you all have wonderful things to say, but you need to let your city leaders know what you're thinking. Write them a letter. Write a letter to this newspaper. Get involved.
As for the city leaders who continue to act as if they can do what they please, whenever they like, be aware that there are repercussions. Citizens (including media representatives - yes, we qualify as citizens too) can initiate complaints to the state's Government Standards and Practices Commission, which is charged with enforcing Oregon's public meetings law and can penalize government bodies that disregard those laws.