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Front Page » February 12, 2008 » Opinion » Secret meetings don't cut it for public
Published 2,355 days ago

Secret meetings don't cut it for public


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Recent events in this county have brought to light some very painful and reality shaking results about public meetings and those that hold them.

When the public's money is as risk, when their well being is at odds with certain private or government officials, when decisions are going to be made about the public's rights, those meetings should be open. People should know who are at those meetings, who is on what side and what their motivation is for holding the meeting.

Meetings about the public's well being and concerns should never be held in private.

Openness and transparency is something the press has been fighting for since the founding of our country. It's one of the things we as a newspaper stand for, as the watchdog of our community.

Some people don't like the limelight because they want to do things behind a screen; a screen of secrecy and deception. They want things to go their way, but they don't want anyone to know that they are behind it. And in some cases they don't want what they have said about the particular situation getting out either.

This type of covert meeting process can be masked in many ways. They can actually do things in secret and then threaten people to keep them quiet. They can also hold meetings openly, but change the times on meetings at the last minute so that people aren't notified. Or they can hold meetings at a time when most people who may have concerns with what they are dealing with, cannot attend. Finally they can adopt policies that deter people from hanging around during deliberations, so citizens can't hear what is being said.

Sunshine laws are in place so that the public is not left out of discussions and deliberations on all but the most sensitive of matters, those being negotiations/litigation and personnel. All other subjects are not exempt from public and press scrutiny.

But sunshine laws only apply to purely public meetings of groups like the county commission, city councils, special service districts, etc. They don't apply to meetings people might have with officials about circumstances they want to see changed in a county or city.

Surely there is more to holding a meeting about the public's business than just following the law. There is also ethics; the ethics of being fair to the people that are affected by any decision or eventual outcome that may take place because of the meeting.

Hiding those meetings, even though they are not governed by sunshine laws are actually more reprehensible, because they are done in the grey area of public life.

Examples of such things occurring?

A meeting of public officials that had been held for years at a time when the general public could attend the meeting was moved this past year back to much earlier in the day, during most peoples' usual work time. The result is that people who may want to come to see how government money is spent, can't attend.

A group who in the past recommended how public money be spent for various projects suddenly didn't want the responsibility of accepting open deliberation on proposals after the state's sunshine law was presented as cause for people being able to observe those considerations.

A city council that held meetings without properly informing the public, under the guise of a special meeting that was called at the last minute.

A meeting about a major decision concerning the college between some private individuals and other officials during which neither the public, the press, nor much current administration was present.

These, and other actions like them, are unfair, anti-public, and pro-elitist.

The public and the electorate in this county needs to rise up and tell their elected officials, on the phone, over e-mail, through snail mail and at the ballot box, that these kinds of behaviors will not be tolerated by citizens of this area.


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