Council backs away from media access policy

A chair in the Ashland City Council chambers is reserved for members of the press. Drew Fleming photo
January 31, 2022

City attorney proposed adopting rules regulating access to executive sessions

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

The Ashland City Council voted 5-1 Monday to make no changes to media access for executive sessions, turning away the city attorney’s suggestion they consider formulating a policy on who can and can’t exercise the media’s right to attend closed sessions.

The issue came up after the city turned away a reporter with the online Ashland Chronicle site seeking access to a recent executive session.

The council did, after more than an hour of discussion, direct staff to record a requesting reporter’s name, email, and affiliation before they may attend virtual sessions. Such identification is standard practice among journalists.

The council seemed to reach a consensus during the discussion that denial of access to an executive session on Jan. 18 was due to an interpretation of state law leaning too much against access and unfamiliarity with the reporter, combined with technical difficulties and unfortunate timing. The action was “a mistake” by the city, Mayor Julie Akins stated several times, adding that “everybody makes mistakes.”

Katrina Brown, the city attorney, said that about an hour prior to the executive session, the city recorder called her for advice on whether to let reporter Dean Silver of the Ashland Chronicle enter the Zoom meeting. Brown said she knew Silver had made public records requests to the city, but she was unaware he was a reporter.

“The timing of this, from my perspective, was problematic because I didn’t have time to try and gather more information,” Brown said.

The city also fielded an email on Jan. 19, the day after the previous City Council meeting and executive session, from another reporter who requested access to future executive sessions. The city did not respond to the request, but the email spurred Brown to consult with City Manager Joe Lessard, who advised her to bring to the council the concept of creating a formal policy on who qualifies as a news media representative.

Akins, who worked in print and TV news and taught journalism at Southern Oregon University, emphasized throughout the discussion that the state statute is clearly defined and shouldn’t be altered with a policy.

“It would’ve been better to fall back on the (Oregon Revised Statutes), which opts for openness,” Akins said. “In other words, if you didn’t know, allow the reporter to attend and I think we made an error in not doing that.”

Akins said the city has been working with a newspaper since the late 1800s and has not had an issue with media access, and shouldn’t plan to have one in the future. The Public Meetings Law was initially enacted in 1973, but has been amended several times since.

“I think that the testimony stands on its own,” Akins said of Monday’s discussion.

Silver was among several individuals who spoke during a public comment period prior to council discussion. Other speakers included Carol Voisin, Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling, citizen journalist Wes Brain and former journalist David Runkel.

“Most of the councilors and staff know who Dean Silver is and that he writes and reports for the Ashland Chronicle,” Voisin said, calling for transparency at the city.

Executive sessions are always closed to the public but journalists are allowed to attend and are directed not to report on proceedings unless members of a governing body stray from the topics at hand. The state law lays out instances where reporters cannot attend, which include the following: hearings to expel a minor student, labor negotiations, and discussions of litigation where the media organization in question is party to the litigation, according to Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Oregon.

SPJ Oregon, an organization that advocates for transparency and adherence of Oregon state law regarding the media, submitted a letter to the council, calling for them to reject the formation of a policy that could reduce access.

Rachel Alexander, chair of the Freedom of Information (or “Sunshine”) committee for SPJ Oregon, drafted the letter on behalf of the organization.

Alexander said that the law does not allow city employees or the council the ability to determine which media sources qualify as “legitimate,” nor attempt to restrict access on that basis.

She pointed to the Oregon Attorney General’s Public Records and Meetings Manual, which states “Public bodies are required to comply with the statute. They cannot modify the statutory requirement by adopting a policy.”

“That opinion further states that a news media representative cannot be excluded on the basis of lacking a particular type of credential or failing to provide advance notice of attendance,” Alexander wrote. “The fact that a particular publication is online or takes the form of a blog is not grounds for exclusion — the relevant question is whether the representative seeking access is engaged in newsgathering for a media organization that regularly disseminates the news. As the opinion states, ‘a governing body may not lawfully enforce a policy that permits it to exclude from executive session a representative of the news media.’”

Councilor Shaun Moran made the motion to keep media access as-is, noting that dozens of emails poured into the city about the policy consideration.

“I think, unfortunately, a series of untimely events maybe tripped up the city attorney, but I think as a body, we have many, many more important issues to discuss,” Moran said.

After extensive back-and-forth discussion about the nuances of a policy, Councilor Paula Hyatt suggested something in between a broader policy and no changes at all: asking for a reporter’s name, organization, and phone number before they attend a virtual executive session.

Councilors Stephen Jensen and Tonya Graham both shared concerns that not having a formal policy would leave the virtual door open for anyone to attend an executive session, but it was emphasized that the sessions are only open to journalists.

Graham acknowledged the importance of a free media, but stressed concerns with how the world has changed in the past decade and the need to protect the purpose of the closed meetings.
“We as a body are certainly not in any way infringing on the media’s rights and responsibility to do their work,” Graham said.

Jensen emphasized that the city was not trying to limit media access, but he was looking for clearer definitions of what defines a journalist. Graham was the sole “no” vote on keeping current media access the same, other than recording some basic information.

Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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