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Why are state transportation commissioners meeting in secret?

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Despite promising to be more transparent, Gov. Kate Brown apparently has given the green light to members of the Oregon Transportation Commission to meet in secret on a review of Oregon's Department of Transportation.SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown’s office declined Friday to explain why the governor wants powerful state transportation officials to meet in secret.

Brown has promised to increase government transparency, but last week a spokesman for the governor said it was legal for a majority of the Oregon Transportation Commission to meet privately without any notice. The commissioners are meeting as part of a committee planning for a review of the Oregon Department of Transportation, which Brown ordered last year. Two of the five members of the Oregon Transportation Commission were at the committee’s first meeting in March and a third member was expected to attend, according to a public record released by the state. That would have resulted in a quorum — enough commissioners to make decisions — but the third commissioner ultimately skipped the meeting for reasons that were unclear.

EO MEDIA GROUPUnder Oregon’s public meetings law, government committees that make recommendations, oversee agencies and set policies must hold open meetings. There are certain exceptions, including for groups that advise the governor.

Chris Pair, a press secretary for Brown, said Friday that this exemption applies to the oversight committee because it is working on the review ordered by the governor. Pair declined to comment on why the committee needs to meet behind closed doors.

However, the committee appears to be advising the Oregon Transportation Commission, rather than the governor.

Commission chairwoman Tammy Baney appointed the committee, and it is providing monthly progress reports to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

Transportation commissioner Susan Morgan, the chairwoman of the ODOT review committee, also did not respond to questions about why the committee must meet in private.

Jack Orchard, a lawyer for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association who has been involved in public records and meetings issues, said that regardless of whether there is a quorum of transportation commissioners, the review committee’s meetings should be open to the public because the group is deliberating on a topic of public interest: What issues a contractor should examine as part of a review of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“Something’s not right here,” Orchard said Friday. “If this group was charged with defining the scope of the review, clearly that’s a piece of public business ... The statute’s broad enough that it says this group is subject to the public meetings law.”

Brown ordered the review to address the concerns of lawmakers and interest groups about the agency’s ability to effectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars the Legislature could approve for transportation projects in 2017. The review is important because some lawmakers are only willing to approve higher taxes and fees on drivers to pay for the projects if the Department of Transportation can demonstrate it is operating efficiently.

The Oregon Department of Transportation estimated last year the review could cost $300,000 to $500,000.

Two transportation commissioners — Morgan and Sean O’Hollaren — are members of the review committee, which the transportation commission created in an effort to distance itself and ODOT from the review. The five other committee members are former state lawmakers and other public officials.

Sean O’Hollaren, the transportation commissioner who missed the March 31 oversight committee meeting, said he did not recall the reason he missed the meeting, but he might have been out of the country.

Baney, who laid out a suggested scope for the ODOT review in the March 31 meeting agenda, said she would have skipped the meeting if O’Hollaren had been there, in order to avoid a quorum of the Oregon Transportation Commission.

Judson Randall is the co-founder and former president of Open Oregon, a charitable organization that promotes government transparency.

Randall said the meeting might violate the spirit, if not the letter of Oregon’s open meetings law, which states “The Oregon form of government requires an informed public aware of the deliberations and decisions of governing bodies and the information upon which such decisions were made.”

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between the Pamplin Media Group and the EO Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..