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Executive sessions not a free-for-all for Scappoose officials

This week we find ourselves in a conflict following what was billed as a closed executive session of the Scappoose City Council.

Oregon public meetings law allows government agencies such as the Scappoose City Council to enter into executive sessions for very specific, legally defined reasons, including discussion of property transactions, labor negotiations, to consider confidential records, or to discuss a lawsuit that has been filed or is likely to be filed against the agency, to name just a few.

Those agencies’ representatives are likewise legally compelled to fulfill specific requirements for entering executive session. They have to cite the reason for going into executive session and, while in executive session, are legally required to restrict their conversation to the specific reason cited. They are not allowed to simply close the door and enter into rants about likes and dislikes in the community, or even to discuss other matters that may be influencing the city — both positively and negatively.

In most cases, except for the discussion of labor negotiations, review of student records or if the newspaper is in litigation with the agency, reporting media, such as a news reporter for the Spotlight, is allowed to sit in on those closed sessions. We are there solely as observers and to ensure the agency’s representatives follow the rules. We are forbidden from reporting on executive session topics unless the governing body strays from the exemption topic, as occurred in this case.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Oct. 7, the Scappoose City Council cited Oregon statute sufficient for discussing pending litigation or litigation likely to be filed, and subsequently entered into an executive session. Shortly into that closed session, however, the councilors — with the exception of Councilors Larry Meres, Jeff Erickson, Jason Meshell (who was absent) and, to some degree, Mayor Scott Burge — discussed the Spotlight’s news reporting with regard to the concluded and ongoing investigations into Scappoose Police Chief Douglas Greisen. We feel safe in reporting that the substance of the bulk of the discussion was not focused on the purpose the councilors had cited for entering a closed session. It was, in fact, an illegal meeting by the terms spelled out by Oregon Public Records and Meeting law.

Instead, there were several ill-intended statements against the Spotlight for having reported misinformation — an interesting claim, considering we have not received any notification to correct the information we have reported. Part of being a responsible reader is correcting those times when we have made mistakes. It happens — we’re human, after all. We’ll write the correction and move on. There was some suggestion our reporting is somehow one-sided, although for each report on the Greisen investigation we have reached out to the relevant parties, in some cases receiving no response or no comment.

Councilor Barbara Hayden said, “There are a lot of miscomments and misinformation in the paper, and that upsets me.” She also called into question the credibility of our reporting. Her comments in this regard had nothing to do with the litigation the councilors were supposed to be discussing. As Hayden is a member of the Personnel Review Committee, which is responsible for reviewing the city manager’s decision to place Greisen on a 10-day unpaid suspension, it makes us wonder what she is telling people in private about the independent investigation into Greisen.

There were rants from some councilors who feel they have been gagged regarding the investigations into Greisen. There was concern City Manager Jon Hanken and Burge were talking to the press while others were advised to issue “no comment.” Others complained they can’t walk into a restaurant or church without being asked about the Greisen investigation, and some - including members of the Personnel Review Committee — indicated the Spotlight reporting failed to take into account privileged information they have in their possession that has not been made available to the newspaper. Again, nothing to do with the reason for the executive session. In fact, the actual purpose of the executive session, when brought up, was largely cast aside as something of small significance to the council.

Eventually — too late, in fact — Scappoose attorney Ron Guerra reined the councilors in, telling them they were “starting to go far afield from where we need to be.”

The discussion, though illegal, was informative. It certainly raised questions about the objectivity of the councilors charged with overseeing the city manager’s management of the Greisen investigation and resulting discipline. Similarly, it revealed a disregard for the privilege of municipal leadership and a willingness to shun the rules, which were constructed to ensure public oversight and to discourage bad-faith government dealings, in favor of venting personal frustrations behind closed doors.

The Scappoose City Council and the employees of the city do not comprise a social club.

Failure to follow the rules has consequences, which is something we would expect the Scappoose City Council to have figured out by now.