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December 10, 2016
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Toward a more open government

Ron Hiatt

As I leave office, I’d like to relay a few thoughts and suggestions about the process of local government. There is almost a brand new slate of legislators, who may find it comparatively easy to break with the status quo and move on to more open methods of government.

Since I have been around, the legislature has moved from caucusing to steering, and now is an opportune time to expand on this openness and move into the politics of inclusion. The stress of these adverse economic times almost demands it.

Caucusing is a practice that allows partisan politicians to meet in private, free of the Open Meetings Law, to strategize away from the public eye. It hit bottom some years ago when, in the middle of a legislative meeting, the majority party then in power, recessed to discuss a hot topic. They went into an adjoining room for about a half hour, came back to the legislative meeting and voted on the issue without any further public discussion.

Those present, the press, the public and the minority legislators were left totally at a loss and totally in the dark.

This was the low point that gave the practice of caucusing a bad reputation.

Steering became the practice when the minority party won back the majority position after the following elections. It was a more open procedure, whereby leaders of both parties met with the county manager and staff to review events, discuss alternatives and steer the county’s direction. The public and press were not included, and most legislators had to rely on those in the steering meetings to catch up. While both sides were involved, few people really had their hands on the wheel. There was less friction, but then, there was less information available.

What I would call “politics of inclusion” would involve expanding steering by holding full executive committee meetings twice per month or more as needs dictate. The executive committee is a “committee of the whole” legislature. All can be there to be apprised of developments, review facts and provide their opinions. What’s more, since it is a full meeting, it has to be on notice and open to the public with an opportunity for all (labor, press and public) to attend and be heard.

And why not? Most of what goes on at any meeting is a matter of public interest. The mundane should not be treated as state secrets. If a topic suitable for executive session should arise, then let it be so stated and discussed in private.

Information is power. To control information is to control action. The fewer who know, the easier it is to take action that can benefit private rather than public interests. To avoid even the appearance of impropriety, let the meetings be public. I would go so far as to digitally record the proceedings and make them available at the county website. It is simple and cheap. The public should be able to hear and decide for themselves.

It has been said when you get 10 politicians in a room, you end up with 15 opinions. (And when I talk of politicians, I also include union representatives. They, too, are elected and must play to their voters as well.) Cynicism can arise from too little information no matter who disseminates it. In place of the fear of mischaracterization or misunderstanding, let the public see and arrive at its own or different understanding.

Inclusion is simple and pure and is as valid as the truths that gave rise to our institutions of open government and free press. And if there is a little more commotion attendant at these meetings, so much the better. It’s simply sauce for the goose.

[Ron Hiatt is the outgoing legislator for District 8 of Sullivan County.]