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Editorial: More transparency in executive departures would help voters

In August, in an apparent surprise, the Lebanon City Council asked City Manager Gary Marks to resign.

Last year, the School District and Supt. Rob Hess parted ways.

We’re not alone. Surrounding communities, indeed, communities around the state, regularly send top executives packing.

Rarely does the public hear why the people we hire to run our primary government institutions resign or are dismissed.

We think that should change.

The silence that surrounds these moves leads to often unhealthy public speculation. Is this corruption? A sex scandal? Embezzlement or some other malfeasance that’s quietly being shoved under the rug in a back room?

Usually, the reason isn’t nearly that dramatic. Sometimes it comes down to personalities and differences of opinions on how things ought to be. A public official may deserve a boot even when performance issues don’t rise to anything criminal.

In Oregon, unlike the 49 other states, news reporters end up in the room during “closed” or “executive sessions,” when governing officials – City Council, School Board members, discuss these issues, but under state law we cannot report directly on what happens in those closed sessions. It’s “background” information. We can only report what’s stated publicly.

We have watched the executives themselves pay the price for keeping it all behind closed doors. The zipped lips can come back to haunt both a job seeker and potential future employers.

Local board members and councilors often feel like they have their hands tied and cannot explain their decisions in public. They’re often frustrated.

The closed-door deliberations aren’t the problem. State law specifically provides for “exclusions” to open meetings law: issues involving disciplinary employment actions, labor negotiations, real estate transactions and other legal actions. There’s good reason for this, since it could be unfair to us, the public, if our representatives were trying to strategize in an open session that any opposing interest would have full right to attend.

But, the reality is that, although final decisions are made in public session, as required by the law, often it all stops there.

We know a lot of us, particularly in smaller communities like ours, believe negative news shouldn’t be aired in public, but the two examples cited above are  as public a position as can be. City managers and superintendents work for the councils and boards elected  by  voting residents – and they lead local agencies that can dramatically impact the lives of their constituents with a stroke or three of a pen.

Still, lack of information contributes to suspicion of local governing bodies, especially when it comes as a surprise to the public. We’re not saying the council was wrong to ask Marks to resign. We’re not saying it was right. If we did, we could not support our position because we can’t discuss the facts or reasoning at all.

We have requested a record that might explain things better. At press time, we were unsure whether we would get it and whether it would answer questions.

Most often, there isn’t really a record we can use, and councilors and school board members keep the  information to themselves as they are instructed to do. As a result, the public is uninformed and loses, left only to speculate on a wide variety of possible causes.

Councils and school boards need to solve this problem.

They should find ways to report to the public how they handle this sort of business – perhaps a contract item for the next manager or superintendent. Chief executives should welcome it. If they’re reasonably upstanding people, it’ll help them in the long run for future employers to understand that their previous job losses were basically differences of opinion.

Most important, such an arrangement, leading to increased transparency, would result in an informed voting public, a win for the most important party in this process.