City Council quorum forms in Rotary club
Last month, a fourth Forest Grove City Council member joined the Forest Grove Daybreak Rotary Club, which constitutes a quorum, but those councilors say they don't foresee any problems with it.
City Councilor Val Valfre was inducted into the club on Tuesday, Jan. 22, joining Councilors Tim Rippe and Tom Johnston and Mayor Pete Truax. With Valfre joining, that means four city council members are in the club. With a seven-member City Council, four is the minimum number of members of a group that must be present to hold a public meeting and vote on city business.
Having a quorum in the club doesn't violate Oregon's public meetings law, because the law specifically does not apply to social gatherings. However, the council members are prohibited from using them to discuss any official business.
"Members constituting a quorum must avoid any discussions of official business during such a gathering. And, they should be aware that some citizens may perceive social gatherings as merely a subterfuge for avoiding the Public Meetings Law," the Oregon attorney general's "Public Records and Meetings Manual" states in part.
Forest Grove Daybreak Rotary Club President Susan Winterbourne said she has spent time researching both the public meetings law as well as bylaws within Rotary, and she believes all four members will be able to serve as club members without breaking any rules.
"I believe that we, as a club, can manage our business of service to the community in a way that doesnt cause conflict for Val or any of the other City Council people," Winterbourne said. "It really is up to the club to figure out how they are going to conduct business that works in their community and for their members, and with that in mind, try to structure this in such a way that none of our members, or people on the City Council, or our community feels that we are doing something that is inappropriate."
She added, "Val is interested in becoming a Rotarian, morning works the best for him and he is perfectly qualified, so I am willing to make that happen within our club."
Forest Grove has two Rotary groups. The Daybreak Rotary Club meets Tuesday mornings for breakfast at the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center. The Rotary Club of Forest Grove meets at noontime Wednesdays for lunch on the campus of Pacific University.
Despite some initial misgivings about how it could be perceived, Councilor Tim Rippe said he doesn't believe any issues will arise with four members in the same club.
"The fact that four members of the City Council are members of the Forest Grove Daybreak Rotary Club should not be an issue," Rippe said in an email to the News-Times. "All of us are cognizant of the state laws regarding public meeting and what it means with respect to the potential of all four of us being in attendance at one of the club's meetings. It is like other such events and gatherings in which four or more of us show up. ... The club is aware of the potential for all four of us being present at any one meeting and I'm sure the membership as a whole will act accordingly."
Truax also said he does not believe there will be any issues, and that the four council members in the Daybreak Rotary Club will actively take steps to avoid any potential problems.
"First of all, I am fully aware of the possibility that there will be people out there that will view our membership in a 113-year-old organization dedicated to service ... as a subterfuge for getting around the Oregon Open Meetings Law," Truax said in an email to the News-Times. "My view is that we respect the Open Meeting Law and its intent that we will bend over backward to maintain transparency and openness with regard to the conduct of government business. To that end, we will most likely consciously sit at different tables during our breakfast meeting."
Valfre, Rippe and Truax all mentioned they have found themselves in situations at other events in the past, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings, Senior Center dinner auctions, Forest Grove's annual town meeting and more, where a quorum was present and that there have been no issues.
"There are also times where we meet in business meetings, such as county housing discussions, or transportations talks. In those meetings, we have endeavored to not only not arrive at any legislative action concerning those topics, but avoid addressing other subjects," Truax said. "I know and appreciate (that), as public officials, we are under a microscope. We have the public trust to uphold, and I honestly think that with the watchful eye of the fifth estate, and with conscience, we will continue to do the right thing with regard to doing the work of the people in the full light of day."
Valfre said that since state law allows a majority of an elected board to attend social events without triggering the public meeting notice requirement, he and other council members have been concerned more about the perception from the public than any legal issues.
"I have made it a point on my own to always sit at a table by myself with other members, no other councilors. I don't talk politics at the meetings, and none of the other ones do either," Valfre said. "The focus (of Rotary) is on doing good things for the community as an individual with an organization that has a great reputation. I'm really conscious of the perception, and I am going to do everything I can to be vigilant to that and not give anyone even a perception that we are doing any kind of city business."
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