A blow for transparency

Published 9:32 pm Monday, September 8, 2014

A City Attorney’s ruling that Suffolk’s nascent Joint City/School Task Force must make its meetings open to the public temporarily stalled a process that officials ultimately hope will result in better government. The task force seeks to improve communication and relationships between members of the City Council and the School Board and develop a working plan for getting extra money into teachers’ paychecks. Those are admirable goals and worthy of some dispatch, but the delay was a very good thing for the people of Suffolk.

A meeting had been scheduled for July, but Suffolk City Attorney Helivi Holland intervened in the hours before the meeting was to have started and told members of the task force — two from City Council and two from the School Board — that they could not hold the meeting behind closed doors, as had been their preference.

Holland’s ruling on the matter was a rare blow for transparency in a city that goes to great lengths to ensure all public messages are massaged and all public statements sifted through the content managers at Market Street.

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We are of the opinion that public bodies should seek the broadest definitions of public business, endeavoring to fling open the doors of government as wide as possible. From the lowest appointed commission to the highest office in the land, the tendency should be toward public disclosure, not toward secrecy. Even when the law might allow something to be protected, governments and their appointed officials should examine each situation and piece of information, asking the question: “What purpose does it serve to make this meeting private, to withhold this information?”

When the answer to that question is along the lines of this — “We want to be able to have a candid conversation” — alarm bells should begin to sound. And that’s exactly the reason members of the task force had sought to meet privately. They believe opening their meetings to the public will keep them from having a frank and open dialogue.

But banishing the public from the meetings would only serve to increase the level of mistrust people in Suffolk have for a governing process that has resulted in big raises for top city and school officials and little or nothing for teachers.

The discussion on that topic needs to be very public, and its participants need to be held very accountable for what they say, how they act and how they vote.