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Editorial: Open meetings the right call on GMOs

Medford Mail-Tribune, May 30:

The sun apparently will shine after all on the state task force appointed to study genetically modified crops, and that’s a good thing. Just as crops, GMO or non-GMO, need sunlight to grow, committees appointed to discuss public policy matters do their best work in the open.

After an initial stumble, the governor’s office and those responsible for running the task force he appointed to study the issue of regulating GMOs in Oregon apparently have decided the group will operate as if it were a public body, although it may technically qualify for an exemption under the law.

Gov. John Kitzhaber announced last October that he would create the task force after lawmakers adopted a bill to ban county governments from regulating GMOs on their own. Jackson County was exempted from the ban because Measure 15-119 had already qualified for the May ballot. That measure passed last week.

Kitzhaber agreed to the statewide ban to secure Republican votes for his “grand bargain” tax and school funding plan. He appointed the Governor’s Task Force on Genetically Engineered Agriculture to study the GMO issue in preparation for possible legislation in the 2015 session.

In April, the governor’s office announced the task force members and the group’s first meeting — scheduled 23 hours after the announcement. That would have violated the public meetings law, which requires 24 hours’ notice, but the governor’s office maintained the task force was exempt.

Technically, that’s probably correct. The state public meetings law says an advisory committee that makes recommendations to a single official, such as the governor, is not a governmental body subject to the public meetings law.

Les Ruark, who works for an Arlington farm growing wheat and alfalfa, objected, saying task force meetings ought to be open to the public and subject to public notice requirements. He said he was told the meetings would not be open to the public.

Ruark, a former Oregon Senate staffer, said by email this week that he has been working with the Oregon Consensus Project at Portland State University, which has been contracted to coordinate the task force, to make sure the public has access to the meetings. Meetings are now being posted in advance online, along with agendas. See www.oregon.gov/gov/GNRO/Pages/index.aspx.

That doesn’t mean public testimony will be taken at task force meetings — it won’t, and the law does not require it except in specific situations. But the public can comment by sending email to G.E.Agriculture@state.or.us.

This might seem a minor matter, but it illustrates an important feature of Oregon’s public meetings law that often gets overlooked by government officials: Exemptions to the public meetings law allow secrecy in specific situations, but do not require it.

In other words, public officials may decide to conduct meetings in public even if they don’t have to. In the case of regulating GMO crops — a matter of intense public interest — the task force and the governor’s office have made the right choice to keep the public in the loop.

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