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By W. Scott Jorgensen
Posted 1:00 AM Eastern
August 4, 2008

GRANTS PASS, OR. --Last week, I reported on a high-level meeting that occurred at Paradise Ranch resort in Merlin, Oregon involving several county, state and federal officials.

The press and public were both barred from the meeting, which apparently involved discussion of the financial crisis currently facing several Oregon counties.

Now, questions are being raised as to the legality of the meeting.

On Wednesday, July 30, an e-mail was sent from Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith to Josephine County Commissioner Dave Toler. Smith had attended the meeting along with Toler, fellow Jackson County Commissioner David Gilmour and others.

A notice of the meeting had been published on Jackson County’s website. That noticed got the attention of KTVL, the local CBS affiliate, and prompted reporter Chris Jones to try and gain access. He was denied, along with me represinting KAJO radio, NewsWithViews Editor Paul Walter and members of the public.

In his e-mail, Smith states that, “Commissioner Gilmour and myself were not aware the press had been excluded from the meeting we attended on July 29, 2008 at the Paradise Ranch property. I cannot understand why they would be excluded even if this meeting were not legally defined as a public meeting.”

Smith goes on to write that “to purposely exclude the press is counter to our practice as well as creating suspicion of government practice. Please bear in mind I have asked for a legal review of the circumstances of our attendance to ensure we have not inadvertently violated state public meeting law.”

The article that I wrote about this meeting went far and wide, and even got the attention of Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson in Eugene.

Sorenson sent an e-mail to some constituents on July 30 in which he also questioned whether or not public meeting laws were violated at Paradise Ranch.

“Jackson County has three elected commissioners, so two of the three commissioners meeting outside the county, and not with another governing board creates two violations,” Sorenson wrote. “Governing bodies can only meet in their jurisdiction or outside of their jurisdiction if meeting with another governing body who’s meeting within their jurisdiction.”

Sorenson wrote that “since the Jackson County governing body i.e. the board of commissioners is three commissioners, whenever two commissioners get together to talk about public business, there is a high likelihood that there’s a public meeting. If there is a public meeting, it must be noticed and open to the public and the media.”

Even though our local daily newspaper (The Grants Pass Daily Courier) saw fit not to run a story about this controversial meeting that happened right in its own backyard, this story did receive some other media attention.

On the morning of Thursday, July 31, I did a radio interview with KMED in Medford about this incident and another radio interview that afternoon. By then, my e-mail box had been flooded with correspondence from people all over the country expressing outrage at what had taken place.

But little did I know that this story was going to take yet another turn.

On July 31, Paul Walter filed a formal complaint about the meeting with the Oregon Department of Justice.

In this complaint, Walter singled out Toler, stating that the commissioner had organized the meeting.

“It is my belief and understanding that Josephine County Commissioner Dave Toler was the person that was instrumental in keeping the media from attending this meeting,” Walter wrote. “I believe that the public trust was compromised due to Mr. Toler’s decision, and must be restored. I believe that Commissioner Toler violated the state open meeting law and perhaps other laws that I am not aware of. Because of Mr. Toler’s inappropriate decision to bar the media, he compromised all the other attendees credibility and perhaps set them up to violate state laws unknowingly.”

Walter went on to request that the Department of Justice do a complete investigation into the incident.

The day after Walter filed his complaint, I obtained another interesting e-mail. This one was from Jan Schindel, the management assistant from the Association of Oregon Counties.

It had been believed that the Paradise Ranch meeting was sponsored by the AOC. In fact, a copy of the agenda that I subsequently received had the AOC listed as the sole sponsor of the meeting.

But in her August 1 e-mail to Josephine County Commissioner Jim Raffenburg, Schindel writes that “AOC did not set it up. As far as I understand, you might want to check with Dave Toler.”

I don’t know quite what to make of all of this, but one thing is clear: The light of day has been exposed, and it looks like every effort is being made by this meeting’s participants to get as far away from it as possible.

There are still many more questions about the Paradise Ranch meeting that need to be answered. But I have every intention of continuing my investigation until I get down to the bottom of it.

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Scott Jorgensen is the News director for KAJO Radio, Grants Pass, OR.
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Sorenson sent an e-mail to some constituents on July 30 in which he also questioned whether or not public meeting laws were violated at Paradise Ranch.