One of the most frustrating aspects of being an elected official is striking a balance between being transparent to the public and promoting efficient government.
When faced with important decisions, most private business owners don’t have to consider public laws, government policies and procedures as do our city, county and state officials. If something needs to get done, and quickly, a businessman just does it – or hires someone to do it for him. There’s no need to publicly solicit bids, hold public hearings and then vote on it.
Therein lies the challenge for new or inexperienced elected officials, who may find themselves running afoul of the rules – unwittingly or not.
To avoid unnecessary controversy, all public officials would be wise to study the “Guide for Public Officials” published by Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission (http://www.oregon.gov/OGEC/).
The guide offers insight on public records and public proceedings. Failure to comply with open meetings laws may result in civil and criminal penalties for public officials, and can also lead to a general breakdown of confidence in our governing bodies.
Elected officials, and interested residents for that matter, can find the answers to questions such as “Can members of a government body communicate with one another verbally, by phone, e-mail or other social media outside of a public proceeding?
Answer: Oregon open meetings rules clearly state that members of a body should refrain from using any of the methods listed above for deliberating or deciding substantive matters properly confined to public proceedings. E-mail is permissible to communicate with other members about non-substantive matters such as scheduling meetings or developing meeting agendas.
This isn’t a matter of cutting off a person’s First Amendment rights, as some might argue, but a matter of one conducting the people’s business in a transparent manner. Elected officials take an oath, knowing they will face a higher level of scrutiny and be held to a higher standard. They have to behave differently, being more careful about what they do and say in order to avoid suspicion of any kind.
It may not be the most efficient way to get things done, but it serves to keep the public’s trust in elected officials.