Public Business Belongs In Public


December 20, 1992|By BRIAN SULLAM

County Commissioner Donald I. Dell believes the press would like to turn him into a ventriloquist's dummy.

At a recent meeting with reporters and editors who regularly deawith county government, Mr. Dell expressed his aggravation that the press is always carping that too much of the public's business is conducted behind closed doors. If the press had its way, Mr. Dell implied, we would control his ability to speak much the way Edgar Bergen controlled Charlie McCarthy.

While we in the press have all sorts of weird desires, none of mcolleagues nor I want to control Mr. Dell's speech -- or that of Carroll's other two commissioners. We would just like them to conduct more of their conversations in public.

Too many important policy decisions have recently beeconducted without the public present. In some of the cases, the meetings were ostensibly open but had not been announced. In other cases, however, the commissioners held closed meetings. yet other instances, the commissioners decided to close their doors to keep out the public.

The commissioners like to point out that, in Carroll's form ogovernment, they represent both the legislative and executive branches of government. When they are acting as the executive branch, they can, under Maryland law, conduct their business behind closed doors.

When the commissioners are acting as a legislature anenacting ordinances, they are obligated under state law to conduct their business in public.

The problem is that in the commissioner form of government, it isn't easy to tell when the commissioners are executives and when they are legislators.

Whenever two commissioners are together and they begin to talk shop, they should realize that they run the risk of talking about subjects, and forming conclusions about them, that the public has a right to hear. If they are taking a long trip to Annapolis and decide to discuss an ordinance pending before ** them, they should not have that conversation.

They may argue that they aren't casting votes, but that is not thissue. Seeing the deliberations and being able to determine the commissioners' intent is just as important as seeing the final decision made.

Certainly, the press has a selfish interest in having thcommissioners make public decisions. If we can observe them ourselves, we don't have to make a lot of phone calls to track down the facts. We don't have to rely on incomplete -- and sometimes inaccurate -- written minutes. With open meetings, we can see government officials making public policy for ourselves.

But more importantly, members of the public, if they wanted to avail themselves of the opportunity, would be able to see their elected officials making decisions.

Open government is accessible government. Accessible government encourages participation. The greater the citizen participation in government, the better the government.

Much of the cynicism about government at all levels is a direct result of its inaccessibility.

Average citizens don't believe members of Congress pay any attention to them. For the most part, the citizens are right. Average American citizens don't wander the halls of the Capitol buttonholing their congressional representatives and senators. But tassel-loafered lobbyists are there every day pushing their agendas.

L The same is true on the state level, but to a lesser degree.

At the county level -- where, theoretically, government is the most accessible -- the feeling persists that the average citizen doesn't have the opportunity to participate in the shaping of public policy.

Yes, there are public hearings on many of the issues, but more often than not, that is where public involvement ends.

Citizens don't sit at the commissioners' table while they hammer out public policy.

Elected officials too often consider open decision-making a burden. They have to watch what they say. They can be held accountable for their decisions. The problem arises that much of the time, the commissioners admit they have trouble determining whether they are acting in their executive or legislative capacities.

I have a suggestion for the commissioners. Forget about the distinction between executive and legislative actions. Open all meetings except for those few instances where it is legal to close the proceedings -- personnel matters, private matters unrelated to public policy, real estate purchases, business relocations, investment of public money, bond issues, criminal investigations and litigation.

As an experiment, try it for a month and see what happens.

The commissioners should also remember Thomas Jefferson's admonition: "When tempted to do anything in secret, ask yourself if you would do it in public. If you would not, be sure it is wrong."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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