Sunshine, long overdue
October 25, 2012 —
Sunshine laws were created to ensure citizens access to government meetings where public business is discussed. For a time last week, there was precious little sunshine to be found as the Sullivan County Legislature held a closed-door meeting on Thursday regarding the county’s publicly funded tourism promotion efforts. By Friday, however, the sunshine thankfully broke through as legislators apparently had a change of heart.
The meeting in question, from which citizens were barred, was to hear presentations from two organizations vying to handle the county’s $500,000 tourism-promotion business, which is funded by a hotel and motel room occupancy tax, sometimes called a room tax or a bed tax. Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA), a non-profit organization with about 300 mostly business members, has administered the county’s tourism promotion for more than a decade. Earlier this year, however, the legislature decided to invite competition by putting the contract out for bid and issuing a request for proposals (RFP). Besides SCVA, the only other organization to respond was the brand new, virtually unknown Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion, Inc.
Let us be clear: competition in an open and fair bidding process is not a problem, but doing public business in private generally is, often fueling the people’s suspicion and mistrust of government.
County officials vigorously defended their decision to hold last week’s meeting in executive session with no indication that there would be a second public meeting to follow. Sullivan County Manager David Fanslau cited a section of the state’s open meetings law that allows an exemption to open-meeting requirements when it is necessary to protect the financial history of a particular individual or corporation. (Why either of these organizations should need to have their financial viability or history kept secret when their source of funds relies primarily on taxpayer money is in itself a worthwhile question.) As a general rule where public business is concerned, the more transparency the better.