A scheduled negotiation between District 21 and the Mosier Community School was canceled Thursday after the negotiation teams were advised by the Oregon Department of Education that they could not meet without public notice and public presence—per Oregon Public Meeting law. The meeting, however, did not require a quorum and therefore should not be subject to Oregon Public Meeting law. In other words, they should have been allowed to meet. The law is designed to ensure that public decisions are “arrived at openly,” not to grind the operations of public bodies to a halt.
Instead of throwing in the towel, District Superintendent Candy Armstrong and School Principal Carole Schmidt (along with their attorneys and other personnel) met anyway. According to Principal Schmidt, they spent five hours—from 3 o’clock to 8 o’clock—working their way through nearly every section of the proposed charter, and will be meeting again today (Friday) to finish their work. The negotiation team will attempt their meeting again on Monday and—if it is deemed necessary—the public will be invited. Stay tuned for more information.
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On February 26, the school boards for District 21 (North Wasco County) and the Mosier Community School met in an executive session to discuss the District’s reasons for not renewing the school’s charter. The key words here are: executive session. In other words, it was a private meeting, closed to the public: no teachers, no parents, no students, and no community members. Unless, of course, they were a member of one of the school boards.
You’ll recall that the District’s board decided — apparently without prior notice — to non-renew Mosier Community School’s charter last month. Since then, the District has fumbled with a list of excuses for doing so (citing, for example, Mosier’s being a month tardy in presenting their annual 2005-06 report, though it was the District that scheduled the presentation). More recently, the District has entered, sort of, negotiations.
Due to the public nature of the discussion (the status and future of the Mosier school), it appears that this meeting was held in violation of /Oregon Public Meeting law (ORS 192.610 to 192.690). This law, which pertains not just to school districts but to any governing body of a public agency, clearly states that “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. It is the intent…that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly” (Italics added). Furthermore, “a quorum of a governing body may not meet in private for the purpose of deciding on or deliberating toward a decision on any matter except as otherwise provided by ORS 192.610 to 192.690.” (Italics added).
These “exceptions” (or exemptions) are outlined in ORS 192.660 and allow for private meetings to be held when discussing, for instance, personnel decisions, labor negotiations, real property transactions, current or pending litigation, or any information that is exempt by law from public inspection. This is just a brief overview, but you get the idea.
Based on conversations with the Oregon School Board Association and the State of Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission, however, none of these exemptions—including the two being claimed by District 21 (“to consider information or records that are exempt by law from public inspection” and “to consult with counsel concerning the legal rights and duties of a public body with regard to current litigation or litigation likely to be filed”)—seem to apply here.
According to Don Crabtree, the (one and only) investigator with the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission, there is something that we—as regular old citizens, even without an attorney—can do to hold our governing bodies accountable.
Here’s how it works: if you suspect that a governing body is violating the Executive Session provisions of the Oregon Public Meeting law, you can file a complaint with the Commission. The Commission will initiate a two-stage investigation into the matter, beginning with a 90-day preliminary review. If violations are confirmed, each member of the governing body can be fined up to $1,000 per violation—including any violations that were incurred during the meeting itself.
But, here’s the catch: someone must lodge a complaint for any action to be taken. As community members and citizens, the responsibility lies with us to hold our governing bodies accountable. If we don’t do it, no one else will.
If you have questions about the Oregon Public Meeting law, or concerns about a possible violation of the Executive Session provisions, please contact Don Crabtree at (503) 378-5105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking of citizen action, the group Friends of Mosier is calling for a public demonstration in support of the school. They’re asking for concerned and interested citizens to meet at the intersection of 6th Street and Cherry Heights in The Dalles (between Albertsons and Fred Meyer), on Saturday, March 17, at 1 p.m.
“Don’t count on someone else, be there and bring afriend (and kids). This may be the last time for a public demonstration!” said the Friends’ email notice. The District, said the notice, needs to be aware that people support the Mosier school, and to negotiate in good faith to renew its charter. “After all these months of them saying there were elements of the charter they wanted to change they still don’t know what they want or at this late date had not reduced it to paper. … This is a very poor start and the sand is pouring through the hour glass.”