Time for council to earn back lost trust

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Former President George W. Bush, reflecting upon his years in the White House during his last weeks in office, acknowledged that many of his decisions had been controversial, but affirmed his belief that history would vindicate his administration.

We leave any such judgment to future historians, whose assessments will be aided by the voluminous records which, by law, have been retained. Records of cabinet meetings, e-mails between officials, presidential memos, now-secret reports from agencies such as the CIA, diplomatic cables — all carefully saved and archived.

But if any future historian — or, for that matter, any reporter today — wants to examine the process whereby the city entered into the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters deal, he or she will have to make do without records.

The complex, interrelated agreements — between the city, LandCo and the USOC, that are now on the verge of unraveling — were created and shaped at meetings from which the public was excluded, and of which no records exist.

During the last two years, City Council met at least a dozen times in closed, executive session to receive information and determine policy regarding the agreements. According to an e-mail from city spokesman John Leavitt, detailed minutes are never taken during closed sessions.

“Recordings of the session are taken but can only be released under court order and are only retained for the time indicated below:

“Executive Sessions — 90 days after meeting pursuant to 24-6-402(2)(d.5)(II)(E)

“Open Meetings — six months after approval of the minutes — GREMRC A-4

“Study Sessions — six months after the meeting.”

What this means, of course, is that no records exist of council’s decision-making process during the run-up to the formal approval of the deal, as well as those concerning the deal’s possible collapse.

If executive sessions were limited to matters that council could not reasonably discuss in an open meeting, secrecy might be justified. But we doubt that such is the case.

Let’s look at Monday’s closed executive session, called at the request of several councilmembers, to discuss LandCo’s legal and financial woes, and expanded to include a briefing on the lawsuit that LandCo filed against the city and the USOC last Friday.

As Vice Mayor Larry Small told us, “There are some things that we can’t discuss in public.” Those things would include the city’s options in responding to the LandCo suit, strategies for restructuring the deal and certain financial information.

But it strains credibility to imagine that nine elected members of council met for three hours, and never ventured into areas that could more appropriately be discussed in public. We suspect that council and city staff were both glad to avoid the potential embarrassment of a public meeting.

All those inconvenient questions from nosy reporters. All those unfair accusations from angry Bruceites. All that base ingratitude directed at the poor folks who serve us all so selflessly.

Given the city’s penchant for secrecy, as well as the statutes that enable it to destroy the records of closed meetings after a few weeks, we’ll never know what discussions were held, or what council decided during that meeting.

When governments make visible, sincere and meaningful efforts to operate openly and transparently, they earn the trust of those whom they serve. That trust is hard to earn — and easy to lose.

The USOC debacle has dismayed and infuriated many in our community, and has caused some to question the competence of city government. These questions can’t be answered by holding closed meetings. They can only be answered by throwing open the windows at city hall, by letting in the fresh air and sunshine, and inviting the people of this city to engage in open dialogue with their elected officials.

Referring to the present crisis, Small said, “We as elected officials have to be as open as possible, and the city council has to perform — or we’ll lose all credibility.”

We agree — and as a starting point, we’d suggest that council schedule an open meeting to share what they can prudently share, and invite public comment. The meeting might be uncomfortable and embarrassing — but like fresh air and sunshine, it’ll be good for everyone involved.