Taking Care of Business
Trying to help constituents leads to lawsuit
By Pete Sorenson
Former Lane County Commissioner Ellie Dumdi and Ed Anderson, a guy I’ve never met, sued Commissioners Bill Fleenor, Rob Handy and me under the Oregon Open Meetings law. They alleged that we had met together secretly to create a supplemental budget to enable the county to hire constituent service assistants. Last week a trial was held in Lane County Circuit Court. This is the first part of my view of the case.
As Fleenor, Handy and I all testified under oath, the three of us never met together privately. In fact, Fleenor voted against the supplemental budget that was the subject of the lawsuit. The most Handy and I can be accused of is having voted, along with Commissioner Bill Dwyer, to approve a budget intended to enhance constituent services. The budget did that in a revenue-neutral way, by carving up a previously budgeted higher-paid position into five pieces, providing five lower-paid, part-time assistants to help constituents.
You might ask: Why did we think constituents needed that help? To understand, go to the county’s website and review the agenda for any meeting of the commissioners. You’ll see that we have to handle responsibly a great many complex matters that require careful consideration. The hazard here is that constituent services will suffer. With the constituent services assistants, we can better respond to requests for help that are also many and varied. Maybe an unemployed person needs guidance getting help from the Lane Workforce Partnership. Maybe a couple with an idea for a small business needs information from the county’s economic development program. Maybe a property taxpayer wants to contest an assessment. Maybe a worried mother needs mental health services for her son. Many people don’t even know where to turn for these services. Our constituent services assistants can tell them.
The supplemental budget at issue in the lawsuit was passed by routine procedure, guided by Christine Moody, who is in charge of preparing the budgets. Supplemental budgets are not unusual. The main business at hand is to make sure the budget is currently in balance, receive and spend the millions of dollars that come in from federal and state taxpayers. It is always property tax neutral, meaning that there’s no increase or decrease in property taxes.
Most of the time, no one comes to the meetings and hearings, as usually they are pretty boring. More rarely, the meetings are hot and contentious, and hundreds of people come. In October 2009, after finishing the fiscal year 2009-10 Supplemental Budget One, Moody began working on fiscal year 2009-10 Supplemental Budget Two. I’ll call it “Supp Two.”
Moody assembled the usual decision packet for Supp Two, placed a notice for the meeting in The Register-Guard, and made sure the agenda and packet were copied and distributed to all commissioners well in advance of the meeting, published on the county’s website and emailed to Lane County’s media list. The full-time, higher-paid position I mentioned had been adopted by the board on a 5-0 vote in June 2009. This budget included the “reprogramming” of that unfilled and unspent higher-paid, full-time position to the five part-time and lower-paid positions I mentioned.
Moody’s memo to the board, available on the county website, said the board had the opportunity to approve, amend, disapprove or otherwise dispose of Supp Two. On Dec. 9, 2009 at 9 am Moody came to Harris Hall, where the Board of Commissioners has met most Wednesdays for the past two years, and explained that a notice went out to the newspaper, that a public hearing was going to take place and then the board could decide what to do. I chaired the meeting and opened the public hearing, but no one testified. The board then started its deliberation, with Handy moving to approve Supp Two and Dwyer seconding the motion. Stewart and Fleenor opposed it. Supp Two was approved on a 3-2 vote. As chair, I signed the board order that Moody had prepared.
I was shocked to find this whole process the subject of a lawsuit two months later. The trial court’s decision is likely by mid-January 2011. After the court’s decision, I’ll have more to say.
Peter Sorenson serves on the Lane Board of County Commissioners. He can be reached at Pete.Sorenson@co.lane.or.us