I’ve just wrapped up a fascinating one-day conference in Grafton, Vermont, which involved a lot of great journalists trying to figure out how to make you care about open government.
By open government, I means nuts-and-bolts stuff: Convincing public officials to follow the law by holding public meetings, and by releasing documents to citizens (including journalists) in a timely and convenient way.
The issue was highlighted in ironic form last week, when one North Country town apparently met illegally in order to try to impede a visit by New York state’s open government expert.
This from the Glens Falls Post Star.
The Horicon Town Board held what appeared to be an illegal meeting Wednesday to ban an event from Town Hall that was to feature the state’s expert on the Freedom of Information and open meetings laws.
The “emergency” meeting was held by the board to rescind permission for local residents to host Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, for an open government discussion at Town Hall on Feb. 9.
In the comment section for the story, a fair number of people sympathized with the officials who held an unscheduled, unnoticed meeting.
The reaction was even more striking last October, when the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that a quorum village trustees in Saranac Lake were holding regular meetings at a local bar.
[W]hen pressed by the Enterprise this week, [Mayor Clyde] Rabideau and several trustees acknowledged public business does come up at the get-togethers.
“We don’t debate things; we don’t make decisions,” said [trustee Jeff] Branch. “We may discuss things.”
This is basic stuff. The public’s business — including the discussions that inform out elected officials’ decision-making — needs to be done in the open, where citizens can see what’s going on.
That’s common sense, but it’s also the law.
But the response to the Enterprise’s reporting was scathing. “The press has made a mountain out of a molehill as they usually do,” was a typical response.
“We have politically motivated and biased reporters working in our community and everyone knows this,” the commenter added.
My bias here is obvious. I’m convinced that when government goes on behind closed doors, or at times the public doesn’t know about, or in locations the public doesn’t know about, bad things are certain to happen.
But I get the fact that we journalists haven’t figured out a way to most citizens care about this stuff. So I’m looking for your thoughts.
Do you think open government matters? Or are journalists just prying pests trying to stir up trouble? If you do think “sunshine” is an important part of democracy, how can we convince more people to share this concern?