In August, Eugene School District 4J’s board of directors was accused of violating public meetings law by holding meetings via text and other messages — aka discussing school business without other members of the board or the public present or even notified of the meeting.
Public records obtained by Eugene Weekly and interviews with board members revealed that while public meetings law may have been violated, the discussion in question was quickly stopped. Board members say any violation was accidental. The investigation did bring up concerns on the importance of retaining public records and of transparency from elected officials.
Oregon Revised Statute 192.630(2) says that a quorum, defined as the minimum number of members who must be present for the group to take official action, of a public entity’s governing body “may not meet in private for the purpose of deciding on or deliberating toward a decision.” Though there is no number that defines a quorum, Oregon law says it “appears to be a majority of the governing body.”
If an elected body tries to circumvent this by meeting in smaller groups to reach a decision on a topic then that can be considered a “serial meeting.” The law is clear about how members of a board can interact in person outside of meetings, but it does not mention the use of cell phones or other forms of group messaging. Generally, if a majority of a board discusses business, that discussion needs to happen in a public meeting.
In this instance, Eugene Education Association Director Sabrina Gordon, who is not subject to public meetings laws as she is head of the union and not a public official, sent a message to board members Gordon Lafer, Laural O’Rourke, Maya Rabasa and Martina Shabram on Aug. 18. The message was about making a voting decision related to “taking credits” for a September meeting and then “ask[ing] EEA and the district how they would be used.” None of the members responded to the texts except Lafer.
During the exchange, records show Shabram sent a separate text to Lafer saying, “Sorry to be blunt about this, but it’s important: the group text with Sabrina could be a violation of public meetings law. Since there are four of us, we can’t really respond. I’m going to tell the others, too.”
Shortly after, Lafer wrote in a message to the first group, “Hey I just realized there are four board members on this thread. We can’t do that — it is a violation of public meetings law so I’m gonna drop out.”
During separate interviews with several board members and the EEA president, all maintained that any breaking of public meetings law was unintentional, and once the error was realized, the messages stopped.
Although the district does not require public records to be kept by board members, several board members may have withheld records when requested, which is a potential violation of Oregon public records law.
All board members except Lafer provided records in response to EW’s public records request. Both O’Rourke and Rabasa provided some records, but did not provide the group messages with other board members and EEA president Gordon. Lafer says the reason he did not provide records is because he “switched phones in September” and lost text messages in the process.
O’Rourke says via email that, “When I saw there was a group chat with several board members on it I deleted it immediately and deleted it any time it popped up on my phone. I did not participate and it is not on my phone.”
EW’s request asked for all forms of electronic communication in addition to the text messages, including emails and Facebook Messenger messages. Lafer did not provide either of those, even though records from other members indicate that Lafer was involved in several email chains and Facebook Messenger groups that discussed school board-related business. Switching over to a new phone does not delete emails and Facebook messages, which can be accessed through the account, rather than the device.
Lafer also did not provide records for a previous request made in August. He did not give a response to why those records were not given. He declined to comment on anything else, including the group messages.
Kerry Delf, a spokesperson for the school district, says when it comes to records retention, 4J follows the Oregon Administrative Rules (OARs) regarding records retention for school district business. OAR does not have a standalone policy about boards keeping public records, but says it is best practice to keep records.
Delf adds the district advises board members to use their official school district email accounts to communicate; that can help prevent some situations where records are missing. When it comes to Oregon public records law, all records that may be responsive to a request should be provided. “Staff should provide any materials that may be responsive to a request and let the administrative staff determine what is releasable and what is not,” Delf says.
Any form of communication among public officials that discusses government — and in this case, school — business can be a public record under state law. That includes both school emails and private text messages between other board members.
“It can be more complicated to retrieve it but it remains a public record,” Delf explains.
While the law is clear on public records, this is not the first time the gray area of emails and other messages possibly constituting a public meeting has come up in Lane County.
In 2012, a quorum of Lane County Commissioners communicated through email and phone calls about a public records request, but in this case only two members were communicating at one time — a serial meeting.
Rob Handy, a commissioner at the time, filed a lawsuit claiming it was a violation of Oregon’s public meetings laws. The Court of Appeals upheld that communications among members who constitute a quorum do violate meetings laws when conducted for the purpose of decision-making or deliberation.
Ironically, in a previous meetings case involving Lane County commissioners, Dumdi v. Handy, it was Handy who faced allegations of meetings law violations. That 2011 case, in which Handy and others were found guilty in circuit court, was never appealed.
In the case Handy filed, Commissioners Jay Bozeivich, Faye Stewart and Sid Leiken released a public letter that accused Handy of trying to pressure a resident to make a contribution toward the $20,000 judgement against him in the Dumdi case. This letter was released several days before Handy faced re-election.
In 2017, Handy filed another lawsuit against the other commissioners and settled for $89,000 after accusing them of violating free speech rights by meeting illegally to release the complaint letter against Handy.
The county denied the allegations that it violated Handy’s rights. The case ended up at the Oregon Supreme Court, and the county settled, leaving things still murky, and board members across the state are told to use caution in regard to meetings via email or messages.
Delf says the 4J board had a work session and training in September about public records retention and public meetings. ‘.ν