Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Send the Open Government Committee Home!

The state's legislative committee reviewing/re-writing open government meeting laws needs to stop and close up shop, revoke all recommendations and go back home. After first deciding to allow for more elected officials to meet and make decisions on public policy in secret, they now offer exemptions of open meeting laws which only enhance perceptions of corruption.

Tom Humphrey's report in todays KNS on the recommendations provides a glimpse into how much business government wants to conduct away from public view:

- Meetings where purchase of property is being discussed.

- Meetings of school boards where the performance of a school superintendent is being discussed.

- Meetings of the board of government-owned hospitals when they are discussing "strategic planning" or "marketing strategies."

- Meetings dealing with the renting or leasing of property by government.

These officials just don't get it - the goal of open government is to serve the public, not hide the policy-makers from oversight.

Why the fearful concern over allowing the public to see how elected officials debate policy or make decisions? Are some afraid the public will see shoddy logic, poor planning, self-serving attitudes, histrionic grandstanding or other behavior which might influence voters?

14 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:48 PM

    It's hard to disagree with most of what you have posted, but it does make sense to keep discussions about how much a government will pay for property secret.

    Two cases here in Morristown: the Morristown College site and the Lowland wastewater treatment plant.

    Both were sold at auction. City government had plans to develop them both in a way that was beneficial to the community.

    Yet, in at least one case (and I believe both) council had to telegraph precisely how much money it was willing to pay.

    The city lost on both cases. The Morristown College site continues to deteriorate. The Lowland sewer plant is in the hands of someone who's out to screw the whole community.

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  2. Anonymous, the law already provides for county commissions and city councils to meet in "executive session" behind closed doors to discuss sensitive issues. Of course, these sessions still have to be announced publicly, which the backroom dealers don't want to happen. The issue of discussing property purchases, personnel matters, etc., is nothing more than a red herring put forth by those who wish to conduct their affairs without accountability.

    There is no conceivable justification for weakening the Open Meetings Law, and the scoundrels attempting to do it should be booted from office.

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  3. OXYMORON10:38 PM

    I agree whole heartedly with Russ on this.

    But I have to point out the realationship between this post by Joe and the previous on "Privacy Lost Rexux". Are these elected officials asking for more "privacy" to discuss their (it is actually OUR) business?

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  4. Anonymous3:40 AM

    Russ,

    Provisions for executive sessions exist for items like pending litigation. Public purchases are in a different category, trust me. If private discussions for public purchases were allowed, why would governments be seeking an exemption to this rule? Think it through.

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  5. The discussions/decisions on the expenditures of the public's money, for purchasing land or anything else, should of course be held in a public forum. Why should government assume it has a right to obtain land or other properties at prices the market does not bear? Again, it makes little sense to me to allow government greater privacy than the individual.

    In the auction case mentioned, could a city council not stipulate that a purchase price made by the city would have to later be approved by council, rather than state a set limit to spend at auction?

    And I can't help but find some irony that comments supporting exemptions to Open Meetings Laws are signed 'anonymous.'

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  6. Anonymous, I have thought it through. The legislative commission has proposed way more than simply allowing the private discussion of property purchases or personnel matters; instead, they're proposing that a violation of the Sunshine Law will only be triggered if four or more members of the same body meet in private.

    This will gut the Sunshine Law in spirit and effect.

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  7. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Joe,

    In the first place, the price of land at an auction is a pretty good definition of market value.

    Could the city council stipulate that a purchase price would have to be approved by the council.

    No, Joe, no. That's not the way auctions work. A large percentage is due on the day of the sale, the same day you sign a contract to pay the remainder of the purchase price.

    No do-overs. No backing out. Not in an auction.

    Contrary to your assertion, what this provision would do is give government the same privacy as the individual. Individuals always reserve the right not to say how much they would pay for a piece of property before an auction. This argument doesn't fly.

    Or you could force everyone to reveal the top price they would pay before the auction. But that's not an auction, is it?

    And please recall, I agreed with much of what you wrote. I'm only dissenting with respect to the provision about prior disclosure of bidding limits.

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  8. Anon, I agree the two auction cases in Morristown you cited offer unique and difficult circumstances. However drafting statewide rules need to include a broader perspective in my opinion.

    Also, as out of fashion as I may be, it seems appropriate to me that government has a responsibility to be more open - less private - than individuals.

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  9. OXYMORON11:29 PM

    Anon's argument has premises that are irrevelant. Government has other recourses in the cases he points out.

    First let me say this: governments and collectives such as corporations should never be extended the rights of an individual. Period. Regulate any collective of more than two members.

    It is strange, but Joe and I have witnessed a plague of "imminent domania" for the past few years in the cause of economic development. Much, if not all, of it I found repugnant and said so. But in the case of the Lowland facility I can see no case that fits the imminent domain requirements more perfectly. Obviously from Anon's reasoning, a government cannot compete for the property under the circumstances previously discussed. The buyer took advantage of that and holds the facilily after buying it knowing that this facility is a cornerstone in developing the property and future economic development, hoping to reap a windfall. Why exercisie the governments long standing means of recourse in this matter? I certainly would support it in this case. I have my suspicions why it is not, but then I am a cynic.

    I don't accept anon's argument in other words.

    Private meetings to decide matters discussed here does not mean they would be held in close confidence enough to give the private knowledge any power. I suggest that more than likely the important information would be in the hands of those who could profit from the information the most as soon as the private decision was reached.
    We don't assume our public servants are saints any other time, why should we in this case?

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  10. Anonymous8:12 AM

    Oxy,

    Corporations already have the rights of an individual. It's called "incorporation," which limits liability to the individuals who started the business.

    For one reason or another, it's a fairly popular idea, this incorporation business. All countries tend to recognize them as corporations and accept the general framework.

    I'm not sure how easily the city would have been to exercise eminent domain on the wastewater treatment plant, in part, because the owner of the property was the federal government. Remember, the property sold at a U.S. Bankruptcy Court auction.

    If the city were to proceed with eminent domain now, I'm sure the price would be something more than what the buyer paid - $748,000 - That's the market value benchmark established in the bankruptcy auction.

    Which brings us back to the original, limited, argument I made about cities having to pre-disclose the amount of money they will pay for a piece of property. Morristown suffered by having to telegraph what it would pay.

    And, mark my words, when that facility is tranferred to a government-run entity, it will end up costing the taxpayers a bundle.

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  11. I've said this before, but I too think it was a major mistake to grant corporations the status of "individual" and accompanying that with the "rights" of individuals. It's an idea which has expanded so much in the last few decades, it is worthy of review and revision.

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  12. Anonymous1:25 PM

    Tell us how you would "revise" or "review" the established doctrine of incorporation. I'd be interested to hear.

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  13. OXYMORON2:00 PM

    The simple and succint answer to the above is: now is the time to examine whether adequate checks and balances to corporate power exist, and if so, are adequate to safeguard the interests of the public in general and the individual in particular.

    "That's all I got to say about that."

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  14. OXYMORON2:16 PM

    "Morristown suffered by having to telegraph what it would pay. "

    Morristown suffered because it is fairly common knowledge what it had at stake by not aquiring the property in order to develop it, and some suggest, to keep the lowland properties from being declared a superfund site.
    Buying an existing plant rather than building a new one for the lowland site should be appealing to the Industial Board as well. I think more than the 758, 000 dollars would still be a bargain. The buyers knew this and so pursued the property, apparently confident they did not need to worry about the county or city condemning the property.
    Without Morristown's interest in the site, I suspect the treatment plant would brought a salvage yard price. Don't know, just suspect.
    You reason that the auction set the property at market value. Exigent circumstances always distort this. The morket value of a gallon of gas is about 3.00 it would be a great deal more to say a man out of gas desperatly needing to get to his daughter's wedding. Or delover his goods to a coustomer.

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