Naked politics

Jeff Golden

Seems to me if we want our outrage at the national Republicans' trashing of open government to be credible, we have to call our friends out when they huddle behind closed doors.  I tried to do that in my Ashland Daily Tidings column this week. Public nudity just one of those issues that put us on tilt, at least down here in God's country.

So here's how it seems to me:

DO YOU REALLY HAVE TO CLOSE THE DOORS?

                                                                                   

“Council members agreed last week to discuss the nudity issue in a [closed-door] executive session… ‘The City Council needs to understand the legal risks, but we don’t discuss that in public because that would essentially give people information about the best ways to file lawsuits against the city,’ [Mayor] Stromberg wrote…”

            — August 28 news story

 

            I’m an admirer of the Mayor, in part because he seems committed to transparent and open government.  But I’m not admiring this.  Not because of the issue itself;  though I’ve twice vented on it in earlier columns, it ranks low on the list of things I think and care about.   I care much more about including the public’s in all stages of crafting policies that will apply to them, unless there’s a clear compelling reason to exclude them.  There isn’t one here.

            This might matter less if we weren’t in the midst of recovering from eight years of national governance that openly sneered at the public’s right to know.  And it’s not clear that very much has changed since January 20.  In almost every context that comes to mind, healing our public life calls for more, not less, openness in government. 

            So why do our little town’s leaders want to close the doors this time?  They say it’s to protect the city’s legal position. Oregon’s rigorous Open Meetings Law makes clear exceptions when litigation or contracts are involved..  The idea is that if you’re fighting with someone in court, or negotiating a contract or real estate purchase, you don’t want to lay all your cards out on the table while the other guy’s holding his close to the vest.  That makes sense.  But there is no court case, present or pending, no lawsuit in sight.  What city leaders seem to be saying is “let’s not give any ammo to some naked clown who might want to sue us down the line,” a hypothetical they could apply to just about any policy issue that’s touchy (and how many aren’t?) until the meeting room doors are closed as often as they’re open.  When that reasoning was questioned, city officials leaned on “attorney/client privilege;” since the City Attorney wrote an advisory memo on the matter, they as clients have a right to review it with him in private.  That sounds like another escape hatch from the law that could be used to close the doors pretty much at will.

             I’m not interested or qualified to argue the legality of what Council’s doing.  But there’s a much different way to go here that could prove their commitment to open government and possibly — possibly, not certainly — lead to fewer hassles than the path they’re taking.

            It’s also simpler.  Hold every single Council conversation on public nudity policy in fully open sessions,  in front of everyone who wants to listen.  Say to us, Mr. Mayor, something like  “Look: we represent people who want our town to be a place of fully open expression, where people can dress (or not) exactly as they choose, and we represent people who are seriously agitated by nudity in some public places.  Our job is to strike the best possible balance between the two, within the framework of constitutional and statutory law.  Come on in to hear and comment on our reasoning, and be sure to listen carefully to what our attorney’s saying, because we intend to walk away with a policy that’s legally bullet-proof, or as close as we can get.”

            One possible outcome would be a coronary for the City Attorney.  Making government transparent and building civic confidence is not part of his job description.  But here’s what I know: if I were someone itching to sue city government, that kind of clear, confident openhanded statement would deter me a lot more than anything created behind closed doors;  I’d figure that if they had to strategize in secret, they must not be so sure they’re on solid ground.

            I vaguely understand why elected officials would rather speak their mind on nudity in private.  And I remember my days as County Commissioners, when there seemed to be all  kinds of good reasons to end-run open meetings requirements. I also remember how much weaker those reasons seemed after I left office

             Whatever the impulse to close the doors is about (and it’s about more than simply covering your political rear-end), it says you don’t really trust the people you represent to understand the issue, to weigh its conflicting elements, to think clearly and well.  There’s evidence for that viewpoint — the antics at the health care Town Hall meetings come to mind — but it sure doesn’t pave the way to a vibrant, healthy civic community.

            Come on, Council.  We can handle this conversation.  The whole naked truth.

 

Jeff Golden is the author of Forest Blood, As If We Were Grownups, and the novel Unafraid (with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com).

 


Comments

  • muhabbet (unverified)
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    thank you admin.

  • Charlie Burr (unverified)
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    This appears to be from Jeff Golden.

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)
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    Say when the Rajneesh disciples took over Antelope the council voted to make our city park the only public nude park in the US of A- As the only normal city councilor I voted for this as I said it was the best idea they had- As our former Mayor Alice Hensley proclaimed it was a great way to tell the maids from the butlers- So we all thought Ashland was incurably hip- are they real Bible beaters after all?

    If mere anticipation of being sued is a valid exemption to the public meetings law it is a poor law. Personally I do not believe that it is a valid exemption. It seems to me that the exemption applies to pending litigation only. If the council wants to avoid a lawsuit they should not adopt a law.

    Also I think the reliance on attorney-client privilege is somewhat frivilous as if you probe that issue I believe you will find that the privilege is to protect the client and their secrets- not to protect the attorney. If it does not involved pending or threatened litigation it would seem to me that a memo or portions of a memo from a City Attorney to the Council (to the extent that it does not include client communications- which includes primarily client statements made in a confidential setting) would not be protected by attorney-client privilege or exempted from public disclosure under Oregon public records law.

    It seems like the Council is bent on a policy of cover-up however-

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    You're a member of the press. Attend the meeting -- you have to promise to keep quiet about it, but Oregon's law is that the press gets to attend closed sessions.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    When nudity is outlawed, only outlaws will get nude.

  • Wrench Monkey (unverified)
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    The whole naked truth? You Democrats can't handle the truth:

    Leaving Obamaland

    In Obamaland the president isn't to blame if the wars continue and the troops don't come home, and the government keeps kidnapping and torturing people --- he didn't exactly say all that would stop right away if at all anyhow, did he, really? In Obamaland,all this can be overlooked or forgiven, or at least put off till Democrats somehow obtain a bigger advantage than a mere crushing majority in the House, sixty votes in the Senate, and a new president.

    And in Obamaland, even though the president told us to judge his first term on whether he delivers effective, affordable health care to millions of Americans including the uninsured, it's not the president's fault if he appears to moonwalk away from a health care bill to a health insurance bill, from single payer to a public option, to insurance co-ops, and to a plan that doesn't cover the uninsured till 2013.

  • hank (unverified)
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    Portland newscaster Tim Riley in his blog at rileylive.com hits the nail on the head on how to deal with the Republicans writing: "In short, the President must stop asking and/or caring what his opposition thinks. The Republicans are great at commanding their rank and file to obey orders from the top. This is what the Democrats have yet to learn. That’s what make them lose every time. They need to be commanded in smoky back rooms to do as they’re told as in the days of the original Mayor Daley and his Chicago machine era politics. As extreme as this sounds, (yes, I know all the unsavory actions of Daley) Democrats must learn to obey orders like Republicans. When attacked, you attack back right away and often, or risk being swift boated John Kerry style."

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