Secret Cover Oregon oversight meetings may violate public meetings law

A group of legislators has been meeting with Cover Oregon leaders in secret oversight meetings. You were supposed to know about it, but were never invited. Their actions may have broken the state's Sunshine Law.

"That committee has, in fact, not been given the information that it needs in the past and we've been moving to change that with the speaker and president of the senate," Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D) explained the existence of a legislative committee for Cover Oregon at KATU News Town Hall meeting about Cover Oregon last week.

Rep. Greenlick tells KATU News that committee has been meeting monthly with Cover Oregon executives since May 2012, some 20 times. Neither Cover Oregon nor the legislators on the committee invited the public or the media to their meetings. Earlier this week, Cover Oregon banned several reporters from attending the most recent meeting.

The committee was formed because it is required by Senate Bill 99, which created the state's health insurance exchange in 2011. That law requires the Senate President and the Speaker of the House to each appoint one Democrat and one Republican to the committee.

Rep. Greenlick and Rep. Jim Thompson (R) were nominated by former House Co-Speakers Bruce Hanna (R) and Arnie Roblan (D). Senators Laurie Monnes Anderson (D) and Brian Boquist (R) were nominated by Senate President Peter Courtney (D).

"Our job is to make sure we have things in place that the executives can do its job and do it responsibly. It's not to look over shoulders and tell them what to do," Rep. Greenlick explained at the KATU Town Hall.

But, the law that created the state's health insurance exchange in 2011 says the committee is supposed to "recommend" and "advise" Cover Oregon leaders.

Rep. Greenlick told KATU News reporter Hillary Lake the meetings were kept private because the committee isn't a formal legislative committee.

"It has no structure, it has no chair or anything like that, it was managed by Cover Oregon," said Rep. Greenlick.

The committee hasn't held any votes or made any decisions about Cover Oregon, or its failed health insurance exchange website, according to Rep. Greenlick. To the contrary, he said at nearly every meeting a representative of Cover Oregon assured the committee the website was progressing and would be completed on time. Rep. Greenlick said Cover Oregon officials scheduled and planned every meeting.

Rep. Greenlick said the committee didn't have any idea the website had failed until other legislators and the public found out about it at the end of September, 2013. KATU News has extensively and exclusively reported on the website's failure and waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Attorney Duane Bosworth tells KATU News it doesn't matter if the committee hasn't made decisions or votes. He said the key words in Senate Bill 99 are that the committee "recommend" and "advise" Cover Oregon executives.

"It is plain Oregon law that when you recommend and advise to another public body, you are what is called a governing body, and you are subject to public meetings laws," explained Bosworth.

Bosworth believes the committee, and Cover Oregon, violated the state's Sunshine Law by holding those meetings in private. That public meetings law has been on the books since 2011. It gets at the heart of democracy, government accountability, and government transparency so business in the public's interest doesn't get done behind closed doors.

"There are three important requirements. One, there must be advanced notice to the public, and the public must be invited. Two, there must be an agenda and something that lays out what's going to happen there, and Three, there must be minutes that are kept of what has happened in a meeting," Bosworth explained.

But, there no committee agendas or minutes.

Cover Oregon Spokeswoman Ariane Holm told KATU News in an email, "To our understanding, Cover Oregon doesn't have authority over the structure or membership. If there had been a desire to make these meetings public we would have done so as we do with our other committees. If we receive direction to make these meetings public we will be happy to do so."

"It's the perfect example of how government shouldn't work and given the subject matter, more public involvement undoubtedly would have been better," said Bosworth.

Bosworth said anyone can file an ethics complaint with the state about the secret meetings.

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