Watching Multnomah County commissioners typing away on their computers or Blackberrys during public meetings got us wondering: Are they responding to remote quarterbacking from staff, making lunch plans, or sniping behind each other's backs?
The answer to all three questions is yes, according to a WW review of emails the commissioners sent between Jan. 1 and July 31 during their weekly Thursday meetings. Chairwoman Diane Linn sent about 250 messages, far more than her counterparts. Lisa Naito sent about 150, Serena Cruz Walsh 60, and Maria Rojo de Steffey 14. Lonnie Roberts' office says he hadn't sent any.
It's not uncommon during public meetings at the county, City Hall amd elsewhere to see elected officials working at laptops. But what caught our eye was the extent to which Linn's staff, especially her senior policy adviser, Thomas Bruner, coaches her through meetings.
Staffers pepper Linn with such advice as: "Cover your mouth when you yawn," "Don't answer this," "Don't say, 'You Know!'," "Iris [Bell, the county's chief operating officer] wants you to hold your head up," "Caution: Just because someone cries doesn't make their story accurate," and "Speak Last!!!!!!!!!"
Linn kibitzes right back: "That's what you want me to say to them?", "Can you believe this?" and "YOU ARE MAKING ME HUNGRY!"
Records show she also turned down an interview request from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston about Portland General Electric. "Can you talk to him? I don't see how it helps me or this community right now," Linn writes to her spokesman, Mike Beard.
The other commissioners have their own outbursts. On March 16, as the morning meeting drags on toward noon, Naito writes to a staffer, "Is my coffee on the way...are you listening...I can't take this anymore!"
On July 20, as the board considered whether to put a library levy before voters, and about the time Linn would have been speaking about her role in past library levies, Naito emails Cruz Walsh, "All about you know who!"
"She cracks me up," Cruz Walsh replies. "But I do have to admit that I appreciate her restraint about the amount."
Strangely, this exchange appears among the messages provided by Naito's office but not in those provided by Cruz Walsh's office—meaning not all the emails were turned over under WW's public records request. And while Roberts' office did not provide any emails, an email provided by Naito shows he did write a message during the Jan. 19 meeting.
And even as Naito, Rojo de Steffey and Cruz Walsh have sought to put the cliquish "Mean Girls" moniker behind them, records show several messages from one to the two others, excluding Linn and Roberts. For example, Naito wrote in June to Cruz Walsh, copying Rojo de Steffey, about where to get $200,000 for an audit of Sheriff Bernie Giusto's management policies. "Would this be a deal breaker with Lonnie? " she writes. "Let's discuss after the Board meeting."
The county commissioners voted the following week to approve that audit. Naito says the commissioners are careful, however, not to deliberate outside meetings or electronically in groups of three or more (which would constitute a quorum) as this would violate the Oregon Public Meetings Law.
To read more of the exchanges, go to www.wweek.com/media/7885.pdf.