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Every spring, folks in the journalism business assess how local government uses or, in some cases, misuses open meetings and records laws.
The conclusion each year: Keep records open whenever possible, keep meetings open whenever possible, keep public business, financed by public money, in the open for all to see and hear. Give as much information to the public as you can.
Every year, there is reason to express concern.
We labor to convince some elected officials that they have an obligation to do all business in the clear light of day. But, the comfort of concealment, the lack of the pressure that comes with open discussion and decision-making concerning controversial issues, is a powerful lure to them. The relief that comes in a retreat to unnoticed meetings of a quorum, from ex parte communications with old acquaintances, from discussions of public matters behind closed doors in executive session whenever there is the slightest chance the law allows it, is a powerful opponent.
Discussions held behind closed doors, for any reason, if they involve, or might ultimately involve, public dollars, public property, public interest, should take place in the open.
The law limits the reasons a local body can go into executive session and, while we chafe at the restrictions, we understand the rationale. The reasons include things such as matters relating to negotiations, contractual matters, certain personnel matters. No decision can be made in executive session; any such action must take place in the open.
But, the law also gives a local body significant latitude concerning what it considers a valid reason for a closed door.
Here is where we wonder about the occasional abandonment of good sense by certain local bodies. Put simply: Why on earth would you want to give the slightest appearance of secrecy and concealment if you don’t have to? In particular, if you are embroiled in controversy, why would you think a closed door, if not absolutely necessary, is going to benefit your situation? Why can’t the subject of an executive session discussion be announced in more detail than with a simple reading of a state statute? Why can’t a discussion begin in public and, if necessary, be moved to executive session?
We believe the use of executive session is counterproductive in many, if not most, cases, and we are regularly amazed that some elected officials do not realize this. Yes, there might be a heated moment when things are made more clear prior to a closed-door session, or when an issue is tackled in the open, but so what? It is public business.
And, further, why sully the image of government with an indefensible stance regarding open records? Why make it difficult for a member of the public to review or obtain copies of records deemed open by state law? Make it as easy as you can. It is not difficult to redact material clearly defined as off-limits by the Open Records Law. It is not difficult to deal with the fact, for example, a monthly record of invoices relating to an attorney’s dealings on behalf of a public body might contain information protected by attorney/client privilege. It can be removed. But, to withhold the other information on invoices — dates of calls and conferences; identification of parties involved; length of time? The public has the right to know how many dollars are spent and whether or not less could be spent to achieve the same results. Make this kind of information easily and, in most cases, immediately available via ordinary administration, at reasonable cost, to any citizen who requests it.
Save yourselves bigger problems. Be as open as possible.