UPDATE: Full investigation opened Friday, Aug. 10.
A local reporter was threatened with arrest for attending Monday’s Lincoln City City Council meeting, if he did not immediately leave the meeting. The reporter, Justin Werner, of Lincoln City Homepage, responded by filing a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, alleging the council violated state law by tossing him from the meeting.
“They said if I didn’t immediately leave the meeting, they would have the police forcefully remove me. It was still a public meeting, so the only way they could forcefully remove me was to have me arrested,” Werner said. The only law that allows removal of meeting attendees is Lincoln City Municipal Code 2.04.110, which lets the council arrest unruly members at their public meetings, according to Werner.
In May, Werner emailed City Recorder Cathy Steere to inform her that he would be attending an upcoming city council executive session. Steere responded with an opinion from the Oregon Attorney General (AG) advising that “advance notice of attendance is not required” for the press to attend an executive session, and warned cities that “excluding a member of the news media for failure to comply with a policy requiring advance notice of attendance violates ORS 192.660(4).” Steere said the AG’s 2016 opinion superseded Resolution 2010-09, an eight-year-old Lincoln City policy that Steere had also provided Werner.
Werner then came to Monday night’s council meeting that was scheduled to discuss acquiring school property in Taft. According to Werner, he entered the meeting and sat down next to Jeremy Ruark, of the News Guard. Steere then came over to Werner and insisted he leave, telling him “you didn’t apply first.” Werner responded that the AG’s opinion that Steere had supplied him specifically said he didn’t need to apply first.
Steere then informed Werner that he did not meet the criteria for news media.
Werner asked Steere if the News Guard, Newport News Times or Dave Morgan from News Lincoln County had ever applied to be recognized as news media. The answer was no according to Werner.
Mayor Don Williams, who was chairing the meeting, said, “well, I’m fine with Justin sitting there, and as long as he isn’t disruptive, we can start this meeting.” In response, City Councilors Dick Anderson, Judy Casper, Diana Hinton, and Susan Wahlke all loudly voiced “NO!” in unison. After a pause, Anderson said “or, we don’t have the meeting.” Councilor Riley Hoagland remained silent, Werner said.
City Manager Ron Chandler then turned to the councilors and said “we have informed Mr. Werner that he does not meet the criteria for a member of the news media,” then turned to Werner and said “Mr. Werner, you have to leave.” Werner asked “what if I just stay?” Chandler replied “then we will have the police remove you from the building.”
Fearing arrest, Werner says he gathered up his things and left the room, and spoke briefly with the police officer that was waiting just outside the door. Werner said he was surprised an officer greeted him, and wondered if an officer is always stationed outside the room, or if he was asked to be there in case he was needed to detain Werner.
The following day, Chandler posted a blog entry, titled “Decisions are made during open session,” and claimed council kicked Werner out because they can’t make decisions in executive session. Werner argues that council hadn’t yet entered executive session, and it made the decision to boot him in a public meeting. Werner also says that Chandler has been critical of Lincoln City Homepage’s reporting in the past, referring to Werner as just a “blogger,” and often ignores his media requests. Werner says Chandler is clearly biased against him, and is trying to bias the Councilors against him, as well, and should recuse himself from advising council on this matter.
Chandler also claimed that Werner didn’t “follow the process.” Werner argues it was the city who didn’t follow its own “process” by failing to provide Werner the application form that Resolution 2010-09 says it provides applicants. Werner also argues that Resolution 2010-09 itself does not appear to be legal, as the AG’s opinion says city councils “are required to comply with the [ORS 192.660(4)] statute. They cannot modify the statutory requirement by adopting a policy.”
Werner wonders if City Attorney Richard Appicello is aware that Resolution 2010-09 may not be legal. Last Monday, Appicello testified to council that the city “should amend a certain ordinance because there’s been a Court ruling, or there’s an argument that it’s unconstitutional, and I don’t want to necessarily broadcast that.”
Werner asks “if a city is aware that a law they wrote is no longer legal, aren’t they obligated to tell the public, so we aren’t ignorantly complying with illegal laws? Why the secrecy? Who are they protecting by remaining silent?”