NEWS

Editorial: An open government best for all

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The year just ended contained examples of both hope and frustration when it comes to making government activity more transparent to the public. 

All government leaders should work in 2008 to foster more examples of openness, leading to more voter faith in how their leaders operate. 

On the bright side, Oneida County legislators took the unprecedented step of opening up party caucuses even though they weren’t required to do so by law. And a state judge cited two Herkimer County towns’ failure to follow Open Meetings Law as grounds for rescinding those towns’ key approval of a wind-turbine project. 

Yet some governmental leaders obviously still don’t get it. Just last weekend, Utica’s Common Council Democrats conducted a private caucus to discuss policy and political issues. And New Hartford’s leaders continue to limit public access to proceedings, even scheduling meetings at odd times such as Saturday mornings and late Friday afternoons. 

Why is open government important? Our nation is different from so many others around the globe because the public chooses its government, because the public has the right to seek redress from the government for its grievances against our leaders. Looking at repression around the globe, it’s vital we all remember just how revolutionary that concept remains more than 230 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. 

In modern times, the state and federal governments passed “Sunshine Laws” enshrining the openness of government actions. In state law, meetings must be open and records must be made available except in the case of specifically delineated exceptions such as ongoing criminal investigations, land deals and specific lawsuits. 

There are interpretations involved, of course. When the county legislature’s Democrats went behind closed doors in their caucus last week to discuss the performance history of a potential aviation commissioner, they were seeking to follow Open Meetings Law even though technically as a caucus they weren’t bound to do so. 

No doubt both county parties will feel their way along as the new era of open caucuses emerges; certainly, they are not bound to discuss certain sensitive topics in public that the full board would not legally be required to talk about in open session. 

Another strength of sunshine laws is that governments must state explicitly why access will be denied. If a record is not made available, an appeals process exists. If a meeting is closed, the public may protest and ultimately may even go to court. That’s what happened in the Herkimer County towns of Warren and Stark. 

Frustrated that those town boards went behind closed doors without stating clear reasons, only to emerge and take key votes in support of the wind-turbine project, some local residents sued. The subsequent court decision states in no uncertain terms that the towns’ failure to follow Open Meetings Law was grounds for annulling the wind-turbine approvals. The cost to the towns may be millions of dollars if the project now does not go forward. 

In short, potential for public embarrassment is not grounds to go behind closed doors or to withhold records. The public needs to know where its leaders are succeeding, and where they’re falling short. 

Whatever short-term struggles that causes leaders or their community pale in comparison to the costs of shutting the public out of the decision-making process.