Open Meeting “Sunshine” Blinds Politicos Far & Wide

The Judicial Branch really gets the concept of transparency.  Although there are occasional missteps, overwhelmingly the Courts understand how all this Open Meeting & Sunshine stuff really needs to work.  For example, when the Supreme Court has a closed-door, Justices-only conferenceto discuss the future of healthcare, the secrecy of those discussions is universally viewed as appropriate because the Court’s job at that point is, well, to do their job & make a decision.  

Leading up to that closed meeting, however, everything the Justices see & hear regarding the case is publically open and recorded.  Did Ginsburg and Scalia chat about the case at the Christmas party?  Did Sotomayor have lunch with a healthcare CEO?  Did Roberts and Kennedy argue about the healthcare mandate during a round of golf?  Of course not…because the Judicial Branch understands transparency.  Evidence & third party input need to occur in the open and be recorded and reviewable.

So why is implementing the Open Meeting concept such a challenge everywhere else in government?  This is probably a more complicated question than I’m making it out to be, but results from a little research on the topic reveal some interesting patterns.

To begin, this isn’t an isolated problem.   Violations of Open Meeting laws appear to be occurring pretty much everywhere such laws exist and at essentially every level of government covered by the laws.  In just two Google Alerts days, stories about Schools Boards, Planning Boards, Public Safety Committees, Boards of Education, City Councils, City Managers, and State Governors popped up in locations as diverse as Kansas, Illinois,  Massachusetts, South Dakota, and Michigan.

It also needs to be noted that the thirst for transparency in government isn’t going away any time soon.  For opponents of Sunshine Laws all I can say is “Good Luck” if you try to erode the scope of these statutes.  While it’s fair to say that these laws add a new burden onto government operations, it’s also pretty clear that the Public’s right to know, participation by the Electorate, and honesty in government are issues that will trump operating efficiency every time.

So if these laws are increasingly applied to all levels of government, and are here to stay, what’s the deal with all the violations?  Three factors seem to at work. 

  • First, there are entrenched habits and “we’ve always done it that way” attitudes.  In other words, it’s human nature to resist change. 
  • Second, there is simple ignorance about what some of the Open Meeting laws require in terms of transparency. 
  • And finally, of course, there is arrogance in the form of “I don’t want to do this so I’m not going to”.

A good example of how a mixture of old habits, ignorance, and arrogance can lead to violations of an Open Meeting statute Governor Brownbackrecently surfaced in Kansas.  The Governor, Sam Brownback, hosted a series of dinners with state legislators to discuss future legislation.  At the time such get-togethers were viewed as standard operation procedure (Old Habits) and nobody gave the Open Meeting law a second thought (Ignorance).  When questions started to arise, the initial response was that the dinners weren’t covered by the law (Arrogance) which was eventually followed by an admission that it was all just a mistake.

When the Miranda Rule against self-incrimination was first introduced in 1966, many problems now facing  Open Meeting laws arose.  Law Enforcement viewed Miranda as a burden and technicality, and implementation ran into Old Habits, Ignorance, and Arrogance.  After more than forty years, however, Miranda remains in place and is generally viewed as an important pillar in our justice system. 

Similarly, despite the current “start-up” problems it’s reasonable to foresee Open Meeting laws gaining the grudging acceptance of government officials and eventually becoming an important element in how we govern ourselves. 

About the Author:  Elizabeth Tice heads up Office Solutions Plus LLC,  where we understand how to record and transcribe meeting minutes according to the Open Meeting Laws.  While we cannot control implementation of the rules in cities and towns, we can control quality output in the form of accurately summarized meeting minutes and all documentation attached to the agenda as part of our Open Meeting Law offering.  617-471-3510.  Try us out!

 

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