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.
Some will remember that this was not the first time Sullivan County’s tourism promotion has been discussed in private. In January, when Democratic legislators first put forward their proposal to call for RFPs, Republican lawmakers complained that the plan was hatched behind closed doors in the Democratic caucus. It didn’t take long for some people to wonder if cronyism was at work when it was revealed that three principals of the new SCTP were prominent county Democrats. Furthermore, there was the matter of timing; SCTP had only days before registered with the county as a non-profit business. At that time, The River Reporter raised the issue of appearances: “The decision to put the RFP out now [makes it] look like it could be a back-room deal, even if it’s not,” and we concluded, “Because there is frequently no way to distinguish between cases in which it only looks like there is a conflict of interest and when there is a real one, the only way to avoid them is to avoid even appearances.”
Our opinion has not changed.
For a couple of days last week it seemed that the troubling issue of restricted public access to information about Sullivan County’s taxpayer-financed tourism promotion business was going to repeat itself, but then something changed.
Notwithstanding unanswered questions about what motivated this most recent closed meeting and the legislature’s change of heart, the legislature finally did the right thing on Friday when it announced that there would be an open public meeting on Tuesday, October 30 for the two organizations to make their presentations again. It will be the first public opportunity for people to learn more about SCTP of which so little is known—thanks in no small part to closed-door government meetings.
This will be the first chance for some sunshine to get into the process.
It will be welcome.
[See companion news story]