April 30, 2007 11:00 pm

The recent letters to the editor and gossip in town are both sad and disappointing.

The idea that I, as mayor of La Grande, am such a powerful personality and intellect that I can impose my will over those of my fellow councilors, city staff or the citizens of La Grande is somewhat flattering, but anyone who knows how city government works is fully aware that the mayor's vote is simply one of seven on the council, and it takes a majority vote for any action to be approved in open session.

The sadness and disappointment in the level of discussion of the city manager's resignation is that at the beginning of the 21st century we are still trapped by outdated and discriminatory attitudes about gender. The idea that a woman, or two women as some accounts have it, could interfere with or control the day-to-day business of paid professionals in city hall, or browbeat six other members of the city council, five of whom are men, would be laughable, were it not evil and dangerous.

Executive session discussions are, by law, confidential. The media is allowed to attend executive sessions, although they may be asked not to disclose any discussion or information. While discussions can take place in executive session, all final decisions by a public body must be made in public (192.660 [6]).

In the specific area of personnel, the individual who is the subject of an executive session must be notified of the exact ORS — Oregon Revised Statutes, the body of law governing the state — that authorizes such a session. ORS also makes very clear that the individual involved may request that the hearing be held in open session, thus allowing the public to attend. Indeed, it is the individual's sole responsibility to make the decision as to whether these personnel discussions are held in open or closed session. The council may not compel the individual to have a closed-door session.

Until recently we seldom called executive sessions in the area of personnel. Our former city manager, Wes Hare, a man whose honesty, integrity, work ethic and moral compass I trusted completely, insisted on having all of his personnel evaluations held in public because he believed so strongly in the public's right to know, a principled stand I admired then and have come to admire even more in the past few months.

So, at least according to my recollection, we did not have any executive sessions concerning the city manager until recently, with the arrival of Mr. Singel.

Over the past eight months, the public record shows that there have been six relevant executive sessions called, all under ORS 192.660 (2) (b) and (i). In each case, Mr. Singel was notified of the relevant ORS and could have requested that the sessions be held in public. It was Mr. Singel's decision, and his alone, that these discussions be held in closed-door executive sessions. As a consequence of Mr. Singel's decision, the council cannot disclose the nature of those discussions.

The sheer number of executive sessions that the council has had over the past eight months suggests that one complaint that was mentioned in a letter — that there was not open and honest discussion of the issues involved — is simply at odds with the facts.

I certainly understand the frustration people have over what seems to be the secrecy surrounding this issue. I personally would have preferred to have these meetings in open session since I think the public has been denied important information. But that is not my call or the council's. It was, and continues to be, Mr. Singel's decision. If he would like to release the council of its legal obligation to remain silent, I for one would certainly welcome the opportunity to make the entire set of executive session tapes available to the public.

I'll close this with a reiteration of the public statement I gave to The Observer on April 2 when the council put Mr. Singel on leave: "Last October I began to hear complaints from both staff and the general public about at-work incidents involving the city manager. After a number of reports from different individuals concerning different events had come forward, I went to the city attorney and asked him to investigate these statements and interview the individuals who had come forward. He did so and in late November an executive session was called so that the council, as a whole, could discuss this issue. The council has now had four executive sessions concerning these complaints (Nov. 29, Dec. 21, Jan. 8, March 23). To date, there have been a number of individuals, staff and members of the general public who have made similar statements about the city manager."

Mr. Singel submitted his resignation and the council unanimously accepted it April 10, 2007.

Colleen F. Johnson is mayor of La Grande.