March 3, 1998 in City

Overused Fig Leaf Revealing In Itself

By The Spokesman-Review

A quarter century has come and gone since states passed laws requiring the public’s governments to operate in public, where voters can watch. During that time, too many governments have forgotten this obligation. They routinely discuss their toughest decisions behind closed doors.

It is time for a new commitment to open government.

It is time for government decision makers to look their constituents squarely in the eye, take stands and explain the reasons for doing so.

They might just be astonished at the result. Plain talk inspires respect. Plain talk is downright refreshing, in a political climate infested with spin doctors, pollsters, image consultants, scheming lawyers and the shameful notion that leadership means telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

Regularly, public officials complain that they are viewed with cynicism by the public and press. Trust us, these officials say, because we mean well. Probably they do, in most cases. But how would the public know?

Investigation by The Spokesman-Review has found evidence of rampant violations of open-meetings laws in both Washington and Idaho. Last year, for example, the Bonner County school board had 67 secret meetings and 12 open meetings. The city councils of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene retreated behind closed doors at 90 percent of their meetings. Trustees of Spokane’s community colleges and Eastern Washington University had a secret meeting at every one of their public meetings.

State law allows a secret meeting only in a few narrowly defined circumstances. In the first decade after open-meetings laws were enacted, secret sessions were rare and officials described specifically the reasons for the secrecy.

But now, government lawyers vaguely will explain that a secret meeting has occurred for several of the reasons allowed in law, including national security. Yeah, right.

Spokane’s City Council hid from the public when it discussed the state’s denial of a shorelines permit for the Lincoln Street Bridge - justifying the secrecy on grounds this multimillion-dollar policy dispute could be litigated.

That was a cowardly abuse of open-meetings law. Every major policy decision, these days, runs the risk of litigation. Should every decision therefore be made in secret?

Officials who hide their deliberations increase public suspicion and thus the likelihood they’ll be sued. They create the impression their reasoning wouldn’t withstand the light of day. That impression is often incorrect. But how would the public know?

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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