Is arranging an emergency meeting through serial emails and phone calls a violation of the open meetings law under the ruling by Judge Michael Gillespie? Recently released emails show the Lane County Commission’s conservative majority decided to have a meeting to vote on an issue with less than 24 hours’ notice. They did not contact progressive Commissioners Pete Sorenson and Rob Handy until less than an hour’ and half before the 9 am meeting on May 3.
The controversial ruling by Gillespie that has been used to paint Handy and Sorenson in a negative light was never appealed, because the conservative majority voted not to do so. That ruling argued that Handy, Sorenson, Faye Stewart and former commissioner Bill Dwyer used serial emails to form a quorum and deliberate. Since Stewart and Dwyer were not named in the Seneca timber-funded suit, they were not part of the case.
The Oregon Legislative Counsel, the agency that provides legal research for the state Legislature and its members, reviewed Gillespie’s ruling and concluded that the judge’s reasoning “does not support the conclusion that a public meeting law violation occurred.” It’s only a violation of the open meetings law if a quorum deliberates together in private. But the Gillespie ruling still stands as far as Lane County goes.
Emails obtained through a public records request show that while County Administrator Liane Richardson contacted Stewart by phone and Commissioners Sid Leiken and Jay Bozievich by email on the evening of May 2 about scheduling an “emergency meeting” to release documents alleging wrongdoing by Handy, she did not contact Handy or Sorenson until the next day. “There was no contact except for the email that went out around 7:40 am Thursday morning,” Sorenson says.
Marianne Dugan, an attorney for Handy, received the emails as part of a public records request she filed after questions arose about the May 3 emergency meeting. She has not yet received all the records she asked for.
Under Oregon law there must be justification in the minutes of the meeting for emergency meetings arranged with less than 24 hours’ notice. The minutes of the May 3 meeting have yet to be released, though the minutes of five other meetings of the Lane County Board of Commissioners have appeared on the county website since then.
Handy has said the release of the documents was timed to maximize the damage that would be done to him in the May 15 primary election, and that by the time he is cleared of allegations of wrongdoing in asking for donations to offset the $20,000 he must pay as part of the Seneca lawsuit settlement, the election would be over. Handy lost to City Councilor Pat Farr, and Farr will take the North Eugene commission seat in January.
Dugan says she is not sure yet how these emails and phone calls between a quorum of commissioners will play out under the Gillespie ruling.