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Citys media policy captures attention in Oregon

A trend-setting effort to decide who is a journalist in Lake Oswego has media and government advocates scrapping to find new meaning in an Oregon law.

The state's unique public meetings law hands watchdog powers to the press when government groups meet behind closed doors.

The closed-door meetings - called executive sessions - are allowed in Oregon when city, school and county boards discuss limited topics defined by state law.

The executive sessions protect a government's ability to strategize out of the public eye in select cases, such as when crafting a legal strategy, making personnel decisions or hunting for land.

Governments cannot take action in the executive sessions but instead use them to arrive at decisions later made official in public.

Though executive sessions are closed to citizens, journalists in Oregon can attend most - but not all - of them.

Journalists are not allowed to report on what occurs in executive sessions but are trusted to monitor whether the talks abide by state law. Information obtained in the sessions is considered 'background' and helps journalists stay aware of sensitive civic issues.

The privilege carves out a unique role for the press in Oregon. The state's open meeting law was approved by the Legislature in 1973 when Watergate was raging in Washington, D.C. At the time, Oregon lawmakers put heavy emphasis on journalists' role to keep politics clean.

But the emergence of new technology has thrown a wrench into a once-simple Oregon concept.

In Lake Oswego, city councilors unexpectedly encountered troubles when Mark Bunster, who writes as Torrid Joe for the political blog Loaded Orygun, tried to attend an executive session.

Unsure whether a blogger would mind the state's no-reporting rule, the city council asked Bunster to leave. They said his lack of institutional affiliation made it impossible to penalize him if he failed to respect or understand the law.

But the city council also asked for direction on a media policy, telling city attorney David Powell they needed to know who meets the definition of a 'journalist' according to the state's rules.

As other cities and counties grapple with the question, a lack of clarity about whether bloggers and journalists are one in the same in Oregon has press associations and government groups scratching their heads across the state.

'I don't think these occasions will be lessoning in the future. For the purposes of the executive session statute, what does (the law) mean in this new world?' said Powell.

His attempt to answer that question borrowed from a media policy approved last year in Columbia County.

In that county, where at least one blogger sought to attend executive sessions, a media policy requires journalists to prove newsgathering credentials. The county asks reporters to carry press badges, recently published articles, proof of identity and a letter on letterhead defining their job.

Powell applied those same rules to a Lake Oswego policy and also added new ones. New requirements would ask some journalists to file written requests to attend executive sessions. They would also give the city council power to request a new reporter if another failed to abide by city rules.

Lake Oswego Mayor Judie Hammerstad said she wants to create a responsible atmosphere for executive sessions in an age where technology has outstripped the fine points of Oregon's open meetings law.

But the city's efforts to define the media have met with concern from trade organizations, open government advocates and media outlets.

Those groups say government should not be allowed to define who is a journalist and what constitutes news.

'If government is allowed to certify media representatives, then government therefore is allowed to decertify,' said Judson Randall, president of Open Oregon, an advocacy group promoting open government.

Once the authority is aquired, Randall said government can change criteria to make rules increasingly burdensome.

Duane Bosworth, a media attorney also on the board of Open Oregon, said any approach to clarify the state law should focus on refining what the Legislature intended when lawmakers approved it.

That effort should not overlook the Legislature's primary goals when it wrote the law, Bosworth said. Those goals were to acknowledge the media as a watchdog and allow journalists to stay current on civic happenings.

'Lake Oswego has to value those things,' said Bosworth.

He is concerned the resulting local policy instead has a punitive tone and is based on worst-case scenarios that have never played out. He said Lake Oswego has been slow to prove the policy has real benefits and is even necessary at all.

'It's as if they are dictating to the world what a news media must look like and that's not proper,' said Bosworth.

Citing a need for more feedback, the Lake Oswego City Council delayed plans to approve the policy Oct. 7. Instead, officials plan meetings with press advocates and will continue talks.

If changes are made, blogger Bunster believes the media policy should address the growing relevance of bloggers in the news industry. Bunster has published Loaded Orygun for three years and points to specific examples of original reporting and breaking news.

'I would say that by any standard I would be fairly considered a member of the media,' he said. 'Whether one becomes part of the media simply by publishing a blog is a different story.'

Hammerstad said she would be glad to see the question resolved outside of Lake Oswego City Hall.

'We certainly did not mean to be a leader in this other than it came up here,' she said. 'I would like to see some kind of policy, if there was agreement on that, that would come from the League of Oregon Cities or the (Oregon State Bar Association) and take Lake Oswego's direct involvement out of it.'

Lee van der Voo is a staff reporter for the Lake Oswego Review and also serves on the board of directors of the Oregon and Southwest Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Van der Voo has recused herself from SPJ's discussion on the Lake Oswego media policy to eliminate conflicts between the organization's goals and her role in reporting on this topic for the Lake Oswego Review.