Judge: Lane County Commission violated Public Meeting law

Judge: Lane County Commission violated Public Meeting law »Play Video
County Commissioners Roby Handy (left) and Pete Sorenson (right) in Lane County Circuit Court on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010.

EUGENE, Ore. - Lane County Commissioners Rob Handy and Peter Sorenson willfully violated Oregon's Public Meetings law by orchestrating what a judge called a "sham" vote in a public meeting.

"This court concludes that plaintiffs have proven their case that defendants violated the Public Meetings law," Coos County Circuit Court Judge Michael Gillespie wrote.

"I respectfully disagree with the trial court decision," Sorenson said Tuesday afternoon. "To be clear, I have fought for and believed in open government."

"Clearly an unprecedented and broad interpretation of Oregon law," Handy said. "Obviously none of us believe that talking one on one or even trying to persuade one another one on one is against the law."

The plaintiffs, Eleanor Dumdi and Edward Anderson, are now entitled to ask the court to order the county - and Handy and Sorenson individually - for attorney fees and other costs of bringing the complaint.

"Well I'm very pleased that the judge saw it as he did because I was really concerned about the violation of public trust and, to me, blatant violation of the public meetings law," Dumdi said Tuesday afternoon.

In the ruling, Gillespie singled out Handy and Sorenson in particular, crediting Handy with coordinating a vote on a supplemental budget to fund paid assistants for the commissioners.

"The evidence is clear that between December 1 and December 9, the fate of Supplemental Budget #2 was decided outside the public meeting context," Gillespie wrote. "Handy, in the lead, made sure that he had the votes lined up.

"The primary participants were Handy and Sorenson, but (Bill) Dwyer and even (Faye) Stewart participated in the process in violation of the Public Meetings law," he wrote.

Gillespie was critical of Sorenson as the Board Chair at the time.

"The evidence shows that Sorenson's conduct was fully supportive and participatory in Handy's scheme," Gillespie wrote. "Not only was he the third and a necessary vote, his vote was organized and decided in the private discussions that took place. He needed to go along with the scheme in order to get the issue addressed and the vote taken with the least amount of public discussion. As the Chair of the Board, he was able to accomplish that - and he did so."

Just because a quorum of the board never met in person did not mean that a quorum of the board was deliberating toward a decision outside of a public meeting.

"The evidence did not show that any three commissioners were ever in the same room at the same time talking about this matter," Gillespie wrote. "That does not mean that the continuing multiple conversations were not a deliberation. All involved knew that a quorum of the board was working toward a final decision outside of the public meeting context.

"In effect, the public meeting vote on December 9 was a sham," the judge wrote. "It was orchestrated down to the timing and manner of the vote as as to avoid any public discussion," The defendants' purpose in that regard was clear - to avoid adverse public comment or criticism as that appears to be how a quorum of the Board viewed The Register-Guard's reporting on the subject."

Watch Handy and Sorenson's press conference