Democracy requires an attitude of openness

Filed under: Opinion |

Colorado Press Association

Sunshine Project

When government officials conduct public business in private it is tempting to think they just do not get it. In the end, though, the problem may not be what they fail to understand as much as what they fail to bring to the job.

There was a reminder of that last month when three members of the Durango City Council met with a private group in a meeting to which the public was not invited to discuss how to defeat a citizen initiative. It was a clear violation of Colorado’s open meetings law.

For starters any gathering of three city councilors beyond a purely social affair is tantamount to a City Council meeting. For the five-member council, three is a quorum – and this was a meeting whose express purpose was to discuss public policy.

Critics are wrong to say councilors should not express their opinion of the initiative. Elected officials do not surrender their First Amendment rights. But by meeting as they did the three councilors in effect gave official endorsement to the opponents of a measure to be decided by the voters. And they did so without public debate or allowing its supporters a hearing.

It seems unlikely they meant to do that, but that is precisely the point. By leaving the public out the councilors lent an illicit air to what was probably only honest civic involvement. Secrecy breeds suspicion, even when it is limited to failing to give notice of a meeting.

Too many officials forget that. City administrators should be believed when they say they did not know the three councilors all would attend the same meeting. But when that became obvious not one of the three spoke up. Apparently, it simply did not occur to them.

It should have. Democracy requires a democratic mindset, the presumption that the people’s business is the people’s business. Closing the door – or in any way failing to include the public – should not only be the last resort, it should be the last thing on officials’ minds. It should be unimaginable.

Too often, however, what elected officials bring to the job is not the experience of good government but the culture of commerce. Business prizes confidentiality and rewards those who keep their cards close to their chests. Lawyers rarely get in trouble for telling clients to shut up. Disclosing information is an accountant’s definition of impropriety.

But what is appropriate in the private sector is wrong in the public arena. What is acceptable in the business world is improper for city councils, school boards or special districts. Apart from a few narrowly defined circumstances, public officials should embrace openness and err on the side of transparency. Moreover, they should learn to do so automatically.

Rather than interpreting open meeting requirements as technicalities, public officials should adopt them as positive injunctions and minimum standards. Rather than viewing public involvement as a necessary step toward getting something done, they should see it as the essence of governance – not the process, but the point. They need to consciously cultivate an attitude of openness that reflexively defaults to public participation in everything.

To do otherwise may be deemed efficient. It may be called discrete. It may be said to be expedient or even necessary. But it is not democratic. And it is not right.

Story from Bill Roberts of the Durango Herald.