Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Post-Truth Task Force

Photo by Chrissy Boylan
Someone said recently, "Real respect comes when another human being is passionate enough about an issue to knock on a stranger’s door and talk."  She was referring to the recent presidential election campaign, but the need to demonstrate respect for others' views applies to campaigns of all sort, including the campaign to end homelessness.

One has to wonder how often Task Force members have "knocked on each other's door" to talk.  One Task Force member said she'd not talked to anyone on the Task Force before she was told to do so at the November meeting.  It was not that she didn't have things she wanted to say, it was that she didn't feel she would be heard.  Likely others on the Task Force have felt the same.  Some have never said more at a meeting than was needed to introduce themselves.  The Task Force "leadership", however, doesn't seem to see anything wrong with the situation.

The Task Force "leadership" decided to spend the year meeting and planning (vs. "doing something"), to conduct meetings as if they were U.S. Senate hearings, and to relegate public participation in the process to three minutes at the end of their meetings.  They withheld crucial information from the other members of the Task Force and the public, including a decision to spend a huge sum of money for an out-of-state consultant and the fact that Polk County quit the Task Force.  And, they did it in secret.     

The co-Chairs claim not to have made those decisions -- that they didn't have "the authority...to make decisions for or recommendations to the task force on policy or administration."  That might come as a surprise to the rest of the Task Force, not to mention the observant public.  And, if they didn't make those decisions, who did?   

Furthermore, if they're not making "decisions for or recommendations to the task force on policy or administration", if they're "just agenda-setting meetings", why conduct the sessions in secret?  Why not accommodate, and even welcome, the media/public interest, instead of refusing repeated requests for the time and place of the meetings?  (See our first request here and subsequent requests below.) 

The answer is simple: the "leadership" want to maintain maximum control over public perception, even if they have to manipulate the truth to do it (e.g., in addition to the above, their repeated misrepresentations about the fact and contents of Commissioner Wheeler's letter).  And thus we find ourselves in the Task Force's post-truth phase.          

This past week, a Salem City Councilor was forced to resign within 72 hours after it was discovered that he had posted a racist video on his Facebook page.  His attempt to apologize just made things worse, as individuals came forward with additional evidence to counter his apology's one-off narrative.  One such individual, call her S.A., had been collecting print-screens of this councilor's Facebook page for almost a year.  We thought it likely S.A. had felt personally disrespected by the councilor's posts.  We asked her why she hadn't brought them forward earlier?  She replied, "I truly thought that it was well known that he was a hateful bigot and people didn't care .... I never thought anyone would care."  

Sometimes people care about a problem, but don't feel there's anything they can do about it.  It's not uncommon for people to feel that way about big societal ills like economic injustice, of which homelessness is but a symptom, racial and other forms of bigotry, and even abuse of authority by  public officials, like what we've witnessed in the Task Force "leadership", and in members' timid acquiescence.  But, as the Councilor's story demonstrates, one day a line is crossed, and suddenly everything changes.  It can happen, even in the post-truth era.  

 
Not Open to the Public

>>> SARAH OWENS 11/9/2016 9:30 AM >>>

Lisa, you never replied to our [previous] request to know the time and place of the co-Chairs' meeting.  Yesterday, you said you would let us know when the next meeting was to take place.  You also said that the co-Chairs' meeting was not an "executive session", it was "just an agenda-setting meeting and not open to the public"  (emphasis added).  We don't believe that can be a correct statement. 

Oregon law defines a meeting as the convening of any of the “governing bodies” described in the law “for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter.” ORS 192.610(5) (emphasis added).  You indicated at a meeting of the Support Services/Education committee meeting that the co-Chairs were, in one of these "agenda-setting meetings", going to consider how to respond to "rumors" (Commissioner Wheeler's notice) that Polk County was not going to participate further in the Task Force proceedings.  It is clear now that the co-Chairs decided to hire an out-of-state consultant at a cost of $20K to "facilitate" one of the Task Force's meetings.  

Deciding an agenda is a significant matter for any public body, and it is clear that three of the four co-Chairs (or now two of the three) (a quorum) are needed to do that for the Task Force.  That means these "agenda-setting meetings" must be properly noticed and open to the public.  

We respectfully ask, again, to know the time and place of the next meeting of the co-Chairs, and that you respond promptly to this request, saying whether or not you disagree with our interpretation of Oregon's Public Meeting law, so that we can consider our options.

Sarah and Michael

From: Janet Carlson <Jcarlson@co.marion.or.us>
Sent: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 10:07 AM

Sarah - Here is advice from Marion County Legal Counsel that affirms Lisa's information. And please watch your tone in your communications with Marion County staff.

Thank you,
Janet
>>> Gloria Roy 10/25/2016 9:49 AM >>>
Marion County participates in the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force, and provides assistance through public meeting noticing of the various meetings of the task force and its subcommittees. You have asked if a meeting of the leadership team is a public meeting that needs to be noticed. The leadership team is comprised of the two mayors and a commissioner from each county. Under the charter, the leadership team has the authority to "call meetings, preside at meetings, set agendas, make appointments to any subcommittees, and make assignments as necessary to carry out the purpose of the initiative."

The purpose of the meetings is to set task force agendas, review procedures, and discuss information to be gathered or presented to the task force. It does not appear that the public meetings laws or its notice requirements apply to this meeting, as the group does not have the authority, nor is it acting, to make decisions for or recommendations to the task force on policy or administration. ORS 192.610(3). According to the Attorney General's Manual on Public Meetings, (2011), page 117, the leadership team is not considered a "governing body", so public meetings requirements do not apply.

"Even though the [leadership team] decides when to meet and determines what procedures it will use to gather and report information, it is not vested with the authority to decide the direction in which the [task force or its subcommittees] will move on an issue of policy or administration." Furthermore, the leadership team is not making recommendations to the task force on substantive task force matters that would also trigger public meeting requirements.

Gloria M. Roy
Marion County Counsel
(503) 588-5220




From: SARAH OWENS
Sent: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 1:43 PM

Thanks, Janet, for the prompt reply.  We don't know what "tone" you're referring, but we do wonder if Ms. Roy was aware on October 25th --  or if her opinion would change if she knew -- that the co-Chairs were making the decisions like those referred to below, namely to contract with an out-of-state consultant at a price of $20K, etc., and to consider how to respond to Polk County's decision not to participate in further Task Force proceedings, including drafting and agreeing to recommend the adoption of the "Update" memorandum regarding same.   These would seem to us to be acting, making decisions for, and recommendations to the Task Force with regard to policy and/or administration, making the co-Chairs "leadership team" a governing body under ORS 192.610(3), unless it can be argued, and perhaps it can, that the co-Chairs' decisions in these matters exceeded their authority.  Assuming, however, that the co-Chairs did not exceed their authority in making those decisions, then they would seem to be a "governing body" under ORS 192.610(3).  

But even if Ms. Roy's opinion were not to change based on the additional information, we wonder what possible difficulty or harm there could be in opening these meetings to the public for the sake of a more open and transparent process on a matter of great importance to the community. 

Sarah and Michael         


From: MICHAEL LIVINGSTON
Sent: Tuesday, November 15, 2016 9:51 AM

Commissioner Carlson and Ms Roy,

To date, we have received no response to our November 9th "public meetings" inquiry below, which outlines the reasons why the MWHI Task Force co-chairs' meetings should be open and accessible to the public.

Michael Livingston & Sarah Owens 



 
From: Janet Carlson <Jcarlson@co.marion.or.us>
Sent: Friday, November 18, 2016 5:04 PM

Hi Michael - I just returned to the office today from the annual Association of Oregon Counties conference that took place in Eugene this week. I was able to connect with Gloria yesterday at lunch, since she came down for the county legal counsel sessions.

Gloria affirmed that the circumstances you described still do not place these agenda setting meetings under the open meetings requirement. The contract with Karen Ray was not an MWHI contract, it was a Marion County contract. Marion County authorizes contracts up to $100,000 to be approved administratively by the county's Chief Administrative Officer. The contract went through Marion County's regular contract processes.

While Marion County did seek input from the co-chairs prior to executing the contract about whether time should be made on the agenda for Karen Ray to facilitate an MWHI meeting, this was an agenda-setting discussion and thus remained within the parameters described by legal counsel that were sent to you previously.

Have a good weekend,
Janet         

From: MICHAEL LIVINGSTON
Sent: Wednesday, November 23, 2016 7:55 AM

Commissioner Carlson:

     (1)  Your report that, over lunch at the recent Association of Oregon Counties Conference, "Gloria affirmed" her previous answer is hardly a "legally sufficient explanation" and raises the question whether Ms Roy is aware of and has considered all of the relevant facts.
     (2)  Whether the execution of the contract with Karen Ray complied with Marion County's contracting protocols is not pertinent to this public meetings inquiry.  What is pertinent is that the current co-chairs, apparently over the objection of Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler, decided for the other members of the Task Force -- i.e., without discussion and decision by them -- that Ms Ray (rather than, say, someone more familiar with the community) would provide consultant services of a particular type and purpose and that the Task Force would be expected to participate.
     (3)  Likewise, the current co-chairs effectively decided for the Task Force what its response would be to Polk County's withdrawal from participation on the Task Force.   For example, the current co-chairs: (a) decided not to honor Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler's request (made in an email to Lisa Trauernicht) to distribute to the other members of the Task Force Commissioner Wheeler's October 18, 2016, letter informing the co-chairs that the Polk County delegation was withdrawing;  (b) decided not to disclose to the other Task Force members during the November 7th meeting the reasons for Polk County's withdrawal and the exact contents of Commissioner Wheeler's letter; and (c) drafted the memorandum purporting to clarify the Polk County situation and made Task Force approval of that memorandum an "action" item on the November 7th agenda.
     (4) The current co-chairs' decisions to determine what the Task Force's understanding of and response to Polk County's withdrawal from the Task Force would be and to contract with Ms Ray go far beyond "call[ing] meetings, presid[ing] at meetings, set[ting] agendas," etc., and plainly constitute "mak[ing] decisions for or recommendations to a public body [-- i.e., the task force --] on policy or administration," which makes the co-chairs' meetings those of a governing body and subject to the public meetings law requirement that they be open to the public.

Michael Livingston & Sarah Owens

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