LEGISLATURE NEEDS TO OPEN CAUCUSES

January 21, 2003 12:00 am

Oregon can take pride in its Public Records and Meetings Law. The law is intended to keep government open and accessible so that the public knows what is going on and how decisions are arrived at. State, county and local governments all must adhere to the law. Only the party caucuses at the Legislature have put themselves above the law. The time has come for the Legislature to open its caucuses to the public.

NEWSPAPER editors in Oregon have sent a letter to legislative leaders asking them to bring their caucuses in line with the law and the Oregon Constitution, which says "deliberations of each house, of committees of each house or joint committees and of committees of the whole, shall be open.''

Some of the legislative leaders balk at the idea of public caucus meetings. They claim the meetings are where the respective parties put together their strategies, that no final decisions are being reached and that the caucuses are not official committees of the Legislature.

THE CAUCUSES WERE intended for the parties to plot their strategies. But the partisanship that has been growing in Salem has turned the meetings into far more than strategy sessions. Only the most naive would believe that decisions aren't being reached in the caucuses.

The five special sessions that occurred last year consisted mostly of closed-door caucuses, with reporters and others having to wait patiently for the doors to open to find out what had been taking place.

The growing importance of the caucuses is making a mockery of the full assembly as well as the multitude of hearings the various committees hold. Does any of it really mean anything? Legislative leaders insist this isn't the case, but the only way anyone will know for sure is if the caucuses are opened to the public.

KEEPING THE PUBLIC'S BUSINESS public is the way government in Oregon is supposed to operate. If other elected bodies can operate effectively under the watchful eye of the public, there's no reason the Legislature should put its caucuses above the law.

The Public Records and Meetings Law was written with the intent that decisions should be arrived at openly. The law says, "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 are made.''

Legislative leaders need to realize that although their role in government is important, they are not above the law. They need to open their caucuses.