For years, possibly decades, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners has been voting on matters while in violation of the open meetings law, according to an Oregon media law attorney.
The issue came to light following a News-Review inquiry into a potential violation. The board subsequently announced at its Wednesday meeting that it will make some changes in favor of more transparency.
The board has been using email to get a consensus on what commissioners consider administrative tasks. They will now make all decisions, from minute day-to-day tasks to policy-changing action items, in a public setting.
Last month, commissioners voted individually by email to shift $300,000 out of the general fund into the county library account and to schedule closing dates for all libraries. They announced their decision by press release.
Budgetary and policy decisions that require commissioners’ votes need to be made in a public meeting. Since the commissioners did not make this decision publicly, The News-Review sought legal advice from Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association attorney Jack Orchard. He said the commissioners violated state open meeting laws.
“It is surprising that a decision of this prominence, which was noteworthy enough to result in a commissioners’ press release to explain the decision after the fact, was apparently made without any form of public process,” Orchard said. “The press release does not explain how the decisions were made, the information relied upon and the individual views and votes of the commissioners. That’s exactly the point of the meetings law.”
Commissioners believed they could give guidance to department heads by email, commissioners Chris Boice and Tim Freeman said. They considered the library funding and closures decision an administrative task that did not need a formal vote in a public meeting.
“Some of the issue really is the difference between the department heads making decisions — which they have full authority to make in their job descriptions and are just wanting to seek our input or counsel — versus a board decision,” Boice said at Wednesday’s meeting. “There’s a distinction there that sometimes has a gray area. We’re going to address that and get it right.”
LIBRARY FUNDING DECISION
Douglas County voters turned down a taxing district in November that would have funded the library system through property taxes. Since then, the county and its cities have struggled to find a means of keeping the system afloat.
On Jan. 3, Library Director Harold Hayes requested commissioners make a financial decision on the fate of the county library system. He submitted a budget adjustment request by email in which he gave the commissioners three options.
The first option would have left the budget as-is, thereby prompting immediate closure of the system due to insufficient funds. The second option would have pulled $300,000 out of the general fund to keep the system open through the end of the fiscal year in June. The last option would have funded the system indefinitely.
All three commissioners voted for the second option, according to commissioner emails. They emailed their votes to Boice’s administrative assistant, who sent them to the finance director, who sent them to Hayes. None of the commissioners saw how the others voted, Freeman said.
Now all satellite library branches are slated to close on April 1, and the main branch in Roseburg will close May 30.
Boice announced the board’s decision to library staff on Jan. 9, and the board informed the rest of the public through a press release that afternoon.
“We decide which option we think is the best option on any given issue,” Freeman told The News-Review the next day. “We do that many times a day, it’s very common, it’s been here since the county started.”
ADMINISTRATIVE VERSUS POLICY DECISIONS
Department directors such as Hayes have delegated authority to make administrative decisions on their own, as do commissioners with regards to the departments they oversee.
The types of decisions a department head or commissioner can make without board approval are outlined in county ordinances. For example, County Chief Financial Officer Jessica Hansen has the delegated authority to spend up to $50,000 on tasks without board consensus.
But sometimes, she wants guidance from the whole board.
“When she does stuff that’s a couple thousand bucks, she feels pretty good about that,” Freeman said. “But as that number gets closer to $50,000, she wants input and direction from commissioners.”
The commissioners saw the library funding and closure decision as just that: their giving guidance to the library director on what he could do as the department head.
Orchard, the newspaper association attorney, sees it differently. He said the decision was both a significant policy and budgetary decision which was required to be taken at a duly noticed public meeting, allowing the public to express its views before the decision was made.
“In fact, it’s obviously enough of a major policy type decision that the county spent money putting the matter to the vote of the people, and there was an election that expressed a policy preference by the people about library services in Douglas County,” Orchard said.
All tasks, whether small administrative duties or significant policy decisions, will now be made in a public meeting, commissioners announced Wednesday morning.
The board added two more regular meetings to their weekly schedule — 8:30 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays, in addition to their current 9 a.m. Wednesday meetings — to account for the additional time spent making decisions.
Although the Monday and Friday meetings are labeled as work sessions, which are traditionally held for discussion purposes, the board will use those meetings to vote on policy decisions. These meetings will have full agendas just like their regular Wednesday meetings.
The board held its first work session last Friday, Boice said, “where we went back and dealt with all of the decisions we made since this issue was brought to our attention, backing all the way to where we made a decision about the library and everything we’ve done since.”
Freeman hopes the change will prevent the board from veering into any legal gray areas that could jeopardize their reputation for transparency. Both Boice and Freeman campaigned on transparency prior to their 2015 election. Commissioner Gary Leif began his first term last month.
Before Boice and Freeman became commissioners, the board would vote by passing around a paper on which commissioners hand wrote their policy preferences, Freeman said.
“That didn’t seem right, because if you were the second person to get it, you would see how the first person voted,” Freeman said. “So we got away from that immediately. It had been done forever.”
Orchard said that method is “absolutely a meetings violation.”
At the meeting Wednesday, Freeman said he hopes to have county staff and commissioners attend training on open meeting and public record laws. County legal counsel Paul Meyer apologized for the public meeting law misunderstanding Wednesday. Boice, meanwhile, thanked the newspaper for its cooperation.
“We want to thank The News-Review for bringing it to our attention and working with us as we try to figure it out,” Boice said.
“I appreciate you guys working with us through this,” he added. “We will get it right. Our intention is to get it right.”