Rockford Register Star Community Blogger Ted Biondo, an elected member of the Rock Valley College board of trustees and the Winnebago County Board, wrote a blog post the other day that I thought at first might be a satire.
Ted lamented provisions of the Open Meetings Act, because he said the law prevented public boards from discussing important matters candidly, which according to Ted could be done easier in small groups behind closed doors and out of range of evil bureaucrats trying to manipulate board members.
He was serious! After I regained consciousness, I decided I needed to write my own opinion of this matter.
I’ve spent my three decades in the news business distrusting public officials. As we say, if your mother says she loves you, check it out. I’ve tried repeatedly to listen in on closed meetings of public boards, both elected and appointed.
My first success was back in the early 1980s when I worked for Bob Stone’s Rockford Journal. I listened in on a back room session of the Rockford School Board when they were talking about something that should have been handled in open session, and I wrote about it. They were not amused. Too bad.
At the Register Star, I’ve often battled with public boards about their tendencies to try to close everything off from the taxpayers who pay for the governments they represent.
I snuck into the unused press gallery, upstairs above the County Board meeting room, to listen in on closed sessions. In both cases members were discussing potentially embarrassing issues that should have been handled openly.
After the County Board locked the door to the press gallery, I tried at a subsequent meeting to leave a running tape recorder under my coat on the chair when the board went into closed session, but John Schou found it and returned it to me in the lobby.
I have put my ear to closed door sessions at the Chicago Rockford International Airport’s board meetings, and interrupted one such session when they were discussing things that should have been out in the open.
Public boards are just that, public. They handle the people’s business, and it should be done openly so the people or their representatives can monitor it. Is that inconvenient for board members? Sometimes, but that’s too bad. American self-government is designed to be inconvenient, so as to prevent wheeling and dealing behind closed doors.
If you’re a member of a public board, it’s different than being a board member of a nonprofit or a corporation. You can’t get together for lunch, breakfast or coffee in any group that represents a majority of a quorum without informing the news media before hand. Period. If you don’t like it, well, that’s tough.
And there is nothing that is required to be discussed in closed session. Rather, the Open Meetings Act ALLOWS certain things to be discussed in secret. Board members have authority over the bureaucrats. I suggest they use it once in awhile. Openly.
Difficult? I sure hope so. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.