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The more open, the better

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Recent decisions by the city council and the school board have led to a lot of discussions about open records and open meetings.

That’s healthy and it’s always encouraging when citizens are filing requests for public records and wanting accountability for whether closed meetings have been properly called.

Without talking about any specifics, imagine a moment if the law was simple: Everything that government does -- every meeting, every document, every email, etc. -- is a public record. There are no exceptions. If a governmental body discusses it or writes it down, the public has access.

The idea seems crazy, but that’s because we’ve been conditioned to believe that there are some things that government just has to deal with in private.

Every state’s open meetings and records laws are different, but almost all start with the premise that everything should be public, unless it meets certain exceptions. Those exceptions vary from a few to a wide range, with Illinois having several broadly-written exceptions.

But sometimes operating in the public view isn’t all that intimidating.

When I was at the newspaper in Corvallis, Ore., the union representing the teachers and the school district decided to hold all of their bargaining sessions in public. In Illinois, such bargaining sessions are not open to the public and when the governmental body discusses strategy or whether to accept a contract that can also happen in closed session.

Several "experts" advised against the school district and the union taking such a step, but the superintendent and association leadership decided to give it a try.

It turned out to be a non-event. In fact, the biggest lesson most of us learned was that bargaining sessions are incredibly boring. A contract was reached with little acrimony and both sides said having the public and the media attend the sessions made little difference.

Personnel matters have been in the news lately and many governmental units believe those matters should be handled in private. There are good reasons for that but imagine, for a moment, if such records were available to the public. Taxpayers and other citizens would have the opportunity to judge whether the employment practices were fair to both employees and those paying the bills. Also, in at least some cases, it would clear up confusion over why disciplinary action was taken. Public employees would argue that their personnel records shouldn’t be exposed to public scrutiny. That’s a solid argument, but what if that became one of the standards of being employed by a public body? Every job has certain advantages and disadvantages. For public employees, one of the disadvantages would be that your personnel record could be examined by the public.

Another possibility is to make the personnel records of only those that report directly to an elected body subject to public disclosure. So, for example, the personnel records of a superintendent or city manager would be public, but the records of a teacher or a police officer would be protected.

What would happen if there were no closed meetings? There may be some circumstances where closed sessions are necessary, for example if purchase negotiations are the subject. But I guarantee that most closed sessions are held for the convenience of elected officials. During my time in Oregon the open meetings law had a strange provision. The meeting could be closed, but members of the media could be present, as long as they promised not to report what happened in the meeting. It was a ridiculous law, but most reporters found that what happened in a closed meeting could have occurred in open session.

Opening records and meetings completely will never happen, especially in Illinois. There are too many officials that prefer to operate in the dark. But the more sun that shines on our government, the better the government serves the citizens.

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