SWEET HOME — Mayor Greg Mahler, mayor pro tem Dave Trask and councilor Sue Coleman will represent the city during the Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in early December in Washington, D.C. And a fourth councilor, Lisa Gourley, plans to attend the event as an individual citizen, the council determined Tuesday evening.
But in doing so, the council could be in violation of Oregon’s Open Meetings Law, and for the second time in two weeks, a reporter for the Democrat-Herald pointed that out to the council. City Manager Ray Towry and City Attorney Robert Snyder also advised the council of a possible violation of the meetings law.
Since January, when news was announced that the Capitol Christmas Tree would come from the Sweet Home Ranger District, the community and City Council have worked together to celebrate and create 10,000 ornaments that will adorn the main tree and 70 other smaller trees for federal offices. Many Sweet Home residents and officials are making plans to attend the festivities in Washington.
The Sweet Home council is composed of seven members. A quorum of that body is four members or more — and when a quorum exists, the council can take official action. If Gourley attends the Washington celebration, she could be the fourth member.
Gourley said Oregon’s Open Meetings Law provides for elected officials to be at social events together.
“Anyone can go to this,”she said. “I did not give up my First Amendment rights” when she was elected to the council.
For example, Gourley said, several councilors were in the same room during the recent Community Health Fair and councilor Bob Briana noted that there were council members at the community’s annual Chamber of Commerce awards banquet earlier in the year.
“We are all big enough to be elected and we are all big enough to know when and how to behave appropriately,” Gourley said, referring to not conducting city business during the trip.
She added that council members take the open meetings law seriously, to the point that a quorum of councilors won’t stand around in the parking lot after a meeting chatting.
“We should not be penalized because somebody somewhere might take advantage of it,” Gourley said. “This is a purely social gathering. We shouldn't even be having this conversation.”
The Public Meetings Law manual notes that elected officials certainly can attend social gatherings, but warns: “However, a purpose to deliberate on any matter of official policy or administration may arise during a social gathering and lead to a violation. Members constituting a quorum must avoid any discussions of official business during such a gathering. And, they should be aware that some citizens may perceive social gatherings as merely a subterfuge for avoiding the Public Meetings Law.”
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Councilor Trask agreed with Gourley that the event is open to the general public, but “not all councilors.”
Councilor Diane Gerson said that while she agreed with Gourley in theory, “the perception of impropriety can cause criticism that is unnecessary.”
Gerson made a motion that the city should be represented by Mahler, Trask and Coleman, who headed up the council’s Christmas Tree committee. The motion was approved, but Gourley abstained due to a conflict of interest.
Gourley said she felt like the other council members were “censoring me.”
Gourley is serving her first term on the council. She was elected in November 2016.
The Capitol Christmas Tree was selected a few weeks ago and will be cut and begin its 3,000-mile journey to Washington, D.C. in November.
In other business, the council:
• Approved seeking bids to renovate the former Sweet Home Ranger District office into a new City Hall. The purchased the building for $750,000 in July 2016. The city has been working with S/EA Architects developing a proposed design. Bid proposals will go out within a week and will be due by Sept. 26. Construction is expected to start about Oct. 22 and be completed by Feb. 28.
• Approved preparing a Safe Routes to School letter of intent application. City Engineer Joe Graybill outlined several potential projects that would provide students and adults with safer paths to schools and get them off city streets and onto sidewalks. Areas of concern include 18th Avenue, Ames Creek Road, Mountain View Road and a potential traffic circle at the 22nd Avenue intersection. Grant funds are available, with a required 20 percent match from the city.
• Approved a search process to secure a new information technology services provider. City Finance Director Brandon Nash told the council the city currently pays about $37,000 for contracted base services, plus $10,000 additional credits as needed. The city receives two days of onsite IT service per month. Other visits are billed at $75 per hour. Nash said the services are not always available around the clock for the Police Department. He was directed to begin researching other options.
• Approved the purchase of a CXT Denali prebuilt restroom for Sankey Park with a total estimated cost of about $72,000. The facility will be set on the north side of the park, near the Weddle Covered Bridge parking lot. The old restroom will be demolished according to City Engineer Joe Graybill. Bids ranged from $60,000 to $180,000.