Semi-public in Suffolk

Published 8:32 pm Friday, September 24, 2010

The past 25 years or so have seen a steady increase in the use of retreats as opportunities to discuss municipal business without the harsh light of public scrutiny. Suffolk has been participating in the trend since at least 1991, when newspaper accounts showed that council would spend $3,000 for a chance to build bridges, reach out to one another and whatever other buzzwords and phrases were popular at the time to represent the concept of getting council members to tolerate one another and learn to work together.

There’s plenty of evidence that the current council has moved beyond the point it had reached in 1991. With an occasional notable exception, members are cordially respectful of one another and usually appear to work in a cooperative fashion to get things done. But they still like to hold retreats.

For two days this week, members met in a conference room at the Suffolk Health and Human Services building to discuss a wide range of topics — from the potential consequences of the closing of U.S. Joint Forces Command to the cost of a proposed new City Hall.

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The meetings were not televised or taped for television. The agenda was not publicized in advance. The meeting was held at an unusual place and during unusual hours, when most folks would be expected to be at work. To be sure, the room where the meeting was held had plenty of seating for the public, and the agenda was not actively hidden from the public. And furthermore a few members of the public, including reporters for two daily newspapers, did attend the meeting.

Still, one wonders why discussion of such important topics as City Hall reconstruction could not take place during a regular meeting. It seems likely that many Suffolk citizens would have at least a passing interest, for example, in the details of a $37.5-million plan to raze the existing City Hall and build a new one in its place.

One might expect that a City Council truly committed not just to the letter of the law regarding open meetings, but also to its spirit, would be sensitive to the appearance that such a retreat might encourage. And considering Suffolk’s reputation for controlling the information that citizens receive, one might expect an even higher level of sensitivity to actions that might exacerbate the negative image.

If Suffolk City Council members really want their constituents to believe that they love the disinfectant power of sunshine, they’ll give some long thought to the matter before they decide to hold another semi-public retreat next year.