EDITORIAL: Public deserves open meetings

Members of some elected bodies in Island County often wonder why the audience consists almost entirely of empty chairs except, perhaps, for a lone reporter who has no choice but to attend this particular meeting.

One reason is that the wheels of government often aren’t interesting to watch: “I make a motion that we support The Flag and The United States of America in case of Alien invasion,” for example. But the most important reason is that often times, not much of interest is discussed in public. Instead, our elected officials and their paid public servants use some dodge to adjourn to “executive” session. In this case, “executive” means “secret,” even though you can’t find a dictionary that defines executive as secret. Leave it to the government to create its own definition for a word just so they don’t have to come out and admit they’re meeting in secret.

Washington state law allows executive sessions under certain circumstances, and sometimes they make sense, such as when actual lawsuits and land purchases are being discussed in detail. But the law is rightly called the “open meetings act,” and its intent is that meetings be kept open. The law itself requires not only that actions be taken openly, but that “deliberations be conducted openly — so that the people may maintain control over the instruments they have created.”

It is not our intent to accuse anyone of breaking the open meetings law, but there have been some issues that weren’t sufficiently aired in public in recent months. The Port of Coupeville renewed the Greenbank Farm management arrangement without adequately discussing in a public setting the performance of the present management, or what other options were available, if any. The North Whidbey Parks & Recreation District created a new “park” in the Hillcrest neighborhood without telling anyone specifically what they had in mind. And just last week, Oak Harbor City Council members went into executive session where they learned about a Supreme Court decision regarding annexations that had already been widely reported in the media.

Public officials should familiarize themselves with the open meetings law and take it upon themselves to see that it is strictly adhered to when they sit in those “executive sessions.” Make the attorney or staff member who suggests a closed meeting justify it by both the spirit and the letter of the law, and make certain that the conversation doesn’t wander to other topics that should be discussed in open session. Information about open public meetings as well as open public records can be found on the Web site of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association at wnpa.com.

It is the duty of our elected officials to talk about everything in public, with rare exceptions. Fulfill that duty and watch as those empty chairs start to fill up. Citizens do care about their elected bodies, but only if they’re given the chance to listen.

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