A veil of secrecy
While in some ways it’s like a Vegas show, watching county commission meetings may in more ways be like watching a show on local TV. All the boring setup and commercials come in fine, but when the climax nears, some overly coiffed meteorologist suddenly appears, gesturing wildly at colorful globs on a map and speaking excitedly about some not-so-dangerous thunderstorm hundreds of miles away.
In the commission’s case, it’s not weather that takes away the key moments. It’s closed-door sessions, when the public is shut out of hearing about the public’s business.
Friday, commissioners voted a whopping nine times to toss the public out of their meeting room so they could ponder government business in secret — a prospect that almost certainly would generate a few explosive outbursts from founding fathers whose courage in establishing our nation we celebrated Tuesday.
Some secret sessions may have dealt with two newsworthy yet still unconfirmed firings of county employees, one over issues that made headlines just a week earlier. The problem is, we the people who pay the bills never get to know whether we’re getting what we pay for.
Worse yet, one or two of the secret sessions may have been downright illegal.
After making it clear both before and afterward that the county attorney was not their attorney of record in a relatively minor real estate matter, commissioners nonetheless invoked attorney-client privilege to talk to her about the case. Any lawyer worth hiring should know that you can’t have attorney-client privilege if one or more of the parties involved denies that an attorney-client relationship exists.
Then there was an even more troubling secret session with the county’s totally government-funded economic development corporation — the group that, over the next five years, will be raking in $1.2 million or more in taxpayer money from the county and the cities of Marion and Peabody.
How can a body funded exclusively with taxpayer money have trade secrets? The “trade secret” exemption was supposed to prevent such things as a private enterprise like Colonel Sanders having to release his secret recipe of herbs and spices when some regulatory agency wanted to ensure there was no health risk. Case after case have held that the exemption must involve actual secrets, disclosure of which would give an advantage to competitors, and that such things as whether to give incentives to a prospective business categorically do not qualify.
After another of the secret sessions, commissioners screwed up by talking in open session about pieces of paper on which they had written the names of finalists for the lake superintendent and auditor positions. By law, those pieces of paper immediately became open, public records. But commissioners wouldn’t release them and were aghast at the notion that anyone might ask.
It’s not any of the public’s business, one commissioner said, adding that the only thing that would happen would be taxpayers would come to them and bug them about who they thought would be a better lake superintendent.
There’s a name for that. It’s called democracy. It’s that type of open engagement between citizens and government that makes the Fourth of July something to celebrate.
“Don’t you trust us?” one commissioner asked. Surely, we do. But the idea of putting blind trust in government officials is the stuff of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and even old King George III, whom we pretty well told off 241 years ago.
— ERIC MEYER