Blogger pushes meetings law limits

Consequences of case could affect media across the state
2012-06-02T07:00:00Z Blogger pushes meetings law limitsBy Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, The World Coos Bay World

LAKESIDE -- To her supporters, Teri Macduff is the high priestess of local news. To her critics, she's the villainess of the village scandal sheet.

Liked or loathed, the owner of LakesideInfo.com has hurled Coos County's smallest town into the center of a statewide debate about traditional and online media.

The trouble began nine months ago when Macduff, a watercolorist with blonde hair and piercing hazel eyes, pushed her homegrown website into uncharted territory.

Across America, local governing boards commonly are permitted to exclude the public from meetings about sensitive topics, such as litigation or employee termination. Oregon, alone among the states, lets news reporters attend the meetings but not report on them.

In September, Macduff tried to attend a closed council meeting. Seated among rows of empty chairs, Macduff argued that she was a reporter and therefore entitled to stay. Mayor Ed Gowan replied that Oregon's law doesn't recognize blogs as media.

'I'm asking you to please leave," he said.

'I will leave, Mr. Mayor," Macduff said. 'But I will leave under protest."

That protest is finally coming to a head. Macduff has been kicked out of three more closed-door meetings. She has lodged two complaints with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. This weekend, she's writing a third.

The commission's verdict, which will likely take months of deliberation, could carry consequences for cities and media outlets across Oregon.

Fred Carleton, Lakeside's attorney, says the central problem is that Oregon's Public Meetings Law doesn't define news media clearly.

Carleton said legislators, writing the law in 1973, never anticipated the Internet. In the past few years, a small but growing number of bloggers have tried to attend closed-door meetings.

Each time, he says, it's caught city attorneys with their pants down.

'It's a real struggle to figure out what to do," Carleton said.

Let her in

Lakeside councilors fear a slew of problems if they let Macduff into their closed meetings.

Those legally defined 'executive sessions" require trust between officials and reporters. A governing body has no practical way to penalize a reporter who spills secrets.

A majority of Lakeside councilors fear Macduff will publicly divulge confidential information. Some worry that, by permitting Macduff, they will be forced to open the door to every Lakeside resident with a computer.

Mildred Dover-Bennett, a local woman who started a blog last year, is knocking.

'If you decide to let bloggers into executive sessions, then you need to let all bloggers into them," she declared at a recent meeting.

Gary Luisi of Hermiston, president of the Oregon City Attorneys Association, says cities are right to be cautious. Certain matters require private deliberations. For instance, if a school board plans to buy land, revealing its intended bid will put it at a disadvantage against other buyers.

'The taxpayers, rather than simply getting a piece of property for an elementary school, are buying at an inflated price for that same deal," Luisi said.

Christian Gaston, president of the Society of Professional Journalists' Oregon chapter, says those fears are overblown.

Gaston says while executive sessions are held for good reasons, few bloggers would intentionally reveal information. If they did, the council's best weapon would be to bar them from future meetings.

'In my mind, the law already has an escape clause for someone who doesn't want to play by the rules," Gaston said.

Gaston says Oregon allows reporters to attend executive sessions so politicians don't wander into topics that deserve public discussion. Privately discussing the price of land is fine, but privately discussing the land's prospective uses is not.

As financially stressed newspapers trim their reporting staffs, bloggers such as Macduff increasingly may fill the watchdog role, Gaston said.

Model policy

With no direction from the state, some Oregon cities have charted their own course.

In 2008, a blogger's request to attend an executive session stumped Lake Oswego officials. Working with the League of Oregon Cities and other groups, the city council crafted criteria for determining who is a reporter.

The criteria emphasize a reporter's institutional connections, such as membership in the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. David Powell, Lake Oswego's city's attorney, says the policy strikes a good balance.

Tim Gleason, journalism dean at the University of Oregon, is skeptical.

'I think the League policy is more restrictive than desirable," Gleason said. 'I think it relies on affiliations and what-have-you that don't fully reflect the media world that we live in.

While Gleason criticizes the policy, he acknowledges that deciding on a case-by-case basis is perilous as well.

'It certainly would not be unprecedented for a mayor or someone to say, 'I don't want that person in, because they are writing negative things,'" Gleason said.

An unanswered question

The consensus among attorneys and academics approached by The World is that, sooner or later, the state Legislature will have to act. Yet Gleason says a state law could be just as arbitrary as the League's policy.

Perhaps more concerning for journalists: If the Legislature can't find a satisfactory solution, the state's unique rule might find itself on the chopping block.

'Any time that you revise a statute that creates a right of access, you always have the danger that right of access will disappear," Gleason said.

In the meantime, unless Lakeside's council has a change of heart, Macduff's best hope is the Ethics Commission. A ruling might give officials across Oregon their first guidance on interpreting the law.

'I'm the little pebble, you know what I mean?" Macduff said. 'And the ripples from me could be huge."

Reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 249, or at dritchie@theworldlink.com.

Copyright 2016 Coos Bay World. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. StacyDunn
    Report Abuse
    StacyDunn - June 07, 2012 5:12 pm
    Lakesideinfo is in my opinion as well as I am sure many others an online blog weather Mrs. McDuff wants to see it that way or not. Anyone who does nothing but smear others who are not followers of the local smut blog/tabloid is doomed to be harassed as well set up and targeted. Cactuswren you hit the nail on the head with your comment. Also if you notice Elaine Armstrong supports McDuff why is this you ask? They are close friends. But this doesn't change how others look at the local website.
  2. Cactuswren
    Report Abuse
    Cactuswren - June 04, 2012 11:09 am
    I can remember all the way back to the 90's when Terlyn Macduff was recalled (along with the Mayor and 3 other councilors) for shady dealings... at that time she and her cronies refused to accept the Ten Mile Sun as legitimate media. She called it yellow journalism and refused to make comment, which in turn did nothing to prevent her mass recall vote. What comes around goes around, I say.
  3. kstreet
    Report Abuse
    kstreet - June 04, 2012 8:52 am
    "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
    -Thomas Jefferson

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