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Spin Control

Sun., April 5, 2009, 6 a.m.

Just wait, we’ll tell you eventually

On Thursday, Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick gathered with other city officials and about 100 of officers and civilian employees to talk about how the department might have to cut about $2 million in 2010. Tomorrow, Sen. Maria Cantwell will meet with about a dozen members of the local medical community for a roundtable to discuss improvements to the health care system.

These two very different meetings had two things in common.

 One is that they involve issues of major public concern. If the city cuts the Police Department by $2 million, it’s a pretty good bet we’ll have fewer cops on the street. Improving or reforming the health care system also affects the public – or at least those who get sick at some point in their life.

The other common element was that the public wasn’t, or in the case of Cantwell’s health roundtable isn’t,  invited and for pretty much the same reason people often use when they want to meet away from the public eye:  Allowing the news media and the public in would inhibit the free exchange of comments and ideas.

In other words, people who have wise or valuable or otherwise important stuff to say might not say it in front of strangers. Or folks who don’t think like them. Or who don’t know what they know. Or who don’t understand what they understand.

That reasoning is a bit odd, because if they really say something so wise or valuable or important that someone in authority hears it and decides to try it, that’s going to have to be communicated to the public some way, at some time. And if someone out there in the public has a really good explanation of why it’s not as wise or valuable or as important as it sounded, maybe it would be a good thing to have them tell the person in authority as soon as possible, before a program is altered, a budget rearranged or a law is amended.

When questioned about their closed meetings, the people in charge offered the standard fall-back. While the public can’t come to the meetings, the leaders will be happy to discuss what came up when it’s over.

Or, in the case of the police meeting, shortly before it was over. Kirkpatrick came out to say that discussions went will but were just getting started and there were lots of constructive ideas and more study was being arranged. Gavin Cooley, the city’s finance guru, popped out to say that it was very productive and a good start for discussions that are going to be taking place with all city departments in the near future.

Before the police meeting, word on the street was the department could be looking at 20 to 50 layoffs. Kirkpatrick insisted there were no hard numbers, but acknowledged that was a range that was being discussed, only for the sake of the exercise and only under a worst-case scenario. She defended the closed-door session as an effort to “share your news first, in house.”

Somewhere down the road, after a special task force looks at options this month and she settles on a package to bring to the mayor, the public’s going to know what Kirkpatrick proposes. And the mayor and council will have a say. Because the public is going to know, eventually, a public official could argue that this first step is no big deal and we could just be a little patient.

Of course, if it’s truly no big deal, one could equally argue there’s no reason to keep the public from knowing what happens from the get-go and seeing how things develop over time. But these meetings are not covered by the state’s Open Meetings Law, so there’s no legal forum in which to make these arguments.

The fact that the health care roundtable is closed to the public might be considered doubly ironic, because it seems that the last try at health care reform, back in the 1990s, foundered in part on the fact that it was put together in secret and didn’t go over well when the final package finally saw the light of day. There’s a well-worn axiom about not learning the lessons of history…but why repeat it?

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.