Concerns about Safety, Accountability, and Transparency in Springfield

On Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Springfield city council held their first meeting after returning from summer break. This week’s meeting consisted of both a work session and a regular session. During business from the audience—part of a regular session—it became clear, yet again, that the Springfield city government has problems. 

Springfield must adhere to the Oregon Department of Justice’s definition and policy of public meetings. This defines what public meetings are by law, why they must be held, and how to keep the public informed of both meeting times and agendas. 

‘“The Oregon form of government requires an informed public aware of the deliberations and decisions of governing bodies and the information upon which such decisions were made. It is the intent of [the Public Meetings Law] that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”

This policy statement is given effect by the law’s substantive provisions, which, among other things, provide that a governing body’s meetings and deliberations are open to the public, that the public has notice of the time and place of these meetings, and that the meetings are accessible to persons wishing to attend.

All substantive provisions of the Public Meetings Law should be read in light of this policy statement. When applying the law to particular circumstances, that policy ordinarily will require an interpretation favoring openness.

We have acknowledged that strict compliance with the substantive requirements of the Public Meetings Law frequently may “sacrifice[] speed and spontaneity for more process and formality.”[573]Nonetheless, we believe that the law’s requirements generally will not interfere with a public body’s administration.”

This policy also outlines the difference between public bodies, i.e. a city council who must adhere to public records and public meeting laws — compared to private bodies which do not need to comply with public meetings laws. It also outlines the authority of the public body, what types of records must be made, and how long those records should be retained.

Currently, Springfield doesn’t comply with the DOJ’s public records and public meetings policies. As of date, 20 videos recorded over the last year are not available to the public for viewing on their YouTube channel.

A screenshot of a table compiled by Double Sided Media that shows what public meetings have been uploaded and which haven’t.

One column count shows how many are missing. The last column count gives the number attributed to the videos rank on the channel, based on uploaded date and the owner’s “add” preference.

It shows that, generally, the most current video gets the top spot — until September 2021. So, even though they added a recent video in record time, it is buried at the bottom of the list.

“A governing body’s obligation to preserve minutes or a recording can come from multiple sources. Currently, the State Archivist’s rules generally provide that public meeting minutes must be retained permanently. Audio or video recordings must generally be retained until one year after minutes have been prepared and approved. However, a public body should consult the rules in Chapter 166 of the Oregon Administrative Rules that are specific to it, as well any special retention schedule approved by the Archivist.”

The Department of Justice’s Policy on Retaining Public Meetings and Meeting Minutes.

Nor has the city updated the archivist website with meeting minutes since October 2020. 

Screenshot of the archive website taken on Sept. 9 at 5:20 p.m. showing current entries for minutes by year.
Screenshot of the archive website taken on Sept. 9 at 5:21 p.m. showing current entries for minutes by month.

Due to the difficulty of using this archivist site it will take more time to discover if other records are missing.

However, it’s evident and indisputable that Springfield is lacking in their record keeping skills.

Most notably missing from the YouTube videos is the March 15 city council meeting involving independent investigator Rick Braziel. During the meeting, he reported his findings upon completion of his external investigation into the misconduct by the police against members of Black Unity during a protest in Thurston on July 29, 2020.

Concerned Springfield citizens have been dutifully attending these meetings demanding accountability and reform. However, time and time again, the city council has been found lacking, ducking, and dodging their responsibilities to the community. 

The city and council remain part of the problem by ignoring the voices of many citizens.

Safety, and what that means for everyone is the constant theme of these voices. As well as full transparency and holding the police accountable in their roles as protectors of peace.

These citizens raise valid concerns over the many instances of misconduct and abuse of force, often deadly, which affect all the community.

Safety, though, wasn’t a concern on Tuesday night. During business from the audience, one speaker asked the city council direct questions regarding the identity of another public speaker. 

While these meetings are public record, both the city staff and mayor broke tradition and engaged with this commenter and answered their questions immediately. Normally, council is able to respond with general comments only after all audience members have been heard.

Instead, Assistant City Manager, Neil Laudati, gave the first speaker’s full name when asked. Correcting himself, he then gave the person’s “screen name.” 

When the second speaker asked for more information about where the speaker lived, Mayor Sean VanGordon intervened. “She’s a citizen in Springfield. Do you have any specific comments for the council to consider?”

The commenter declined and the council casually moved on to other audience members. Another community member, Johanis Tadeo, quickly brought this issue to light and explained how these actions cause citizens, especially individuals from marginalized communities, to live in fear.

“I hope that moving forward, that we could also have folks who are speaking feel like they are safe. When another person from the public also comes and comments, specifically trying to identify who the first speaker was, to me that sounds scary. This is coming from a person who comes from a disenfranchised community here in Springfield, who lives in fear.” said Tadeo.

Double Sided Media reached out to the city to ask why they answered the commenter’s questions but has yet to receive a full response. 

However, Amber Fossen, the city’s public information officer, did reply to say that she would look into it.

DSM also reached out to the second speaker and asked if they were a reporter. They responded that they were, however, declined to give the name of the media outlet.

Tadeo also asked the council to improve transparency, which can build trust between citizens and their government – specifically referring to the May 30, officer-involved shooting of Alexander Konnoff. The Lane County DA, Patty Perlow, ruled that the officer-involved shooting was justified, but did not require Springfield to release the body-cam footage. 

“We’re still waiting to see those videos. When will they be released?” he said. 

Even though the city has been on break for the last two months, some citizens feel that they should be prepared to handle disruptions and safety concerns. 

Lizzy Utterback welcomed the council back from break before stating that she agreed with Tadeo. She asked the council “what protections are in place, or what your thoughts are on, for keeping us all safe?”

Hostile environments have been erupting during public meetings all over Oregon during the last year. 

Multiple mayors have resigned due to intimidation and threats received after efforts made towards safety, equity, and inclusion. School board meetings have actively been disrupted or canceled by far right extremists aggressively claiming that they are defending their freedom. 

Often these antagonists refuse to wear masks, decry science and vaccines, and spew racist and hateful rhetoric.

After Tuesday’s meeting concerned citizens feel, especially now, that the council needs to step up their efforts towards keeping public meetings safe for all community members.

Steve Moe was the first council member to reply to audience members. 

“Once upon a time, when the public testified they gave their name and address, and there was no fear in those days. Times have changed. God, I hate that change. Nowadays, we need to protect those people. They need to get out in the public, say what they think without fear that someone will track them down or say something against them.”

“I’ll be completely transparent,” council member Damien Pitts replied. “I was raised that you achieve in silence.” He says that the community may not get all the answers they want because sometimes plans fail and then there would be backlash for over-promising and under-delivering. 

In response to Tadeo’s questions about releasing the body-cam footage, Nancy Newton said that footage hasn’t been released because to her knowledge releasing that is part of adjudicating a crime and it’s up to the DA to do that.    

Clearly, at the moment, it’s loud and clear that Springfield has dreams of being a safe, welcoming, and transparent city. 

But so far they remain just that – dreams.

Mary Bell

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