In a democracy, it is vital that the public’s business be done in public. Anything less will undermine support and damage credibility.
When seven members of the Greenwood City Council met in private to discuss the aquatic center project, they short-circuited the public’s ability to stay informed on this important local issue.
The city council met behind closed doors and without notifying the public to discuss the mayor’s criticism of the pool committee and to brainstorm about how to make the proposed aquatic center pay all its own expenses, including by raising the rates. Council president J. David Hopper called the meeting a caucus, which is a political strategy session usually closed to the public.
But this was a discussion of a public issue by a public body and not a political meeting.
The state’s public access counselor takes a similar view. Luke Britt said the discussions should have happened in a public meeting because residents have the right to hear about the aquatic center. The meeting wasn’t political strategy and didn’t fit the purpose of a caucus, Britt said.
A caucus is for elected members of a political party who are invited to talk privately about whether a project or an issue fits within their political ideology. Discussing a project and solutions to a problem is an official action of the city council, whether the members vote on the issues later or not, Britt said.
The public access counselor is appointed by the governor as the state’s expert on the Open Door Law and provides legal advice on public access laws to the legislature, local governments and residents.
“Coming up with ideas for how to solve a problem is taking official action. I can’t see it any other way. They’re just doing something that should be done in a public meeting,” Britt said.
Mike Campbell, Brent Corey, Linda Gibson, Ezra Hill, Hopper, Thom Hord and Tim McLaughlin attended the meeting. Council members Bruce Armstrong and Ron Bates did not attend.
Bates said he didn’t go because the topic of the meeting wasn’t included on the email invitation from Hopper, it didn’t fit his schedule, and residents should be able to attend meetings.
“It’s circumventing the people of Greenwood and (not) letting them voice their opinion,” Bates said. “It just kind of goes against the grain of transparency.”
Armstrong didn’t attend because he had to work. Had he gone, he would have left the meeting when he learned the topic, he said.
“Discussion to avoid public discussion is not appropriate,” he said.
We agree. This is a vital city manner, and the more Greenwood residents know about the project the better.
Hopper said of the meeting: “You can talk freely and don’t have to worry about how anyone can misconstrue or twist their words around. We’re just trying to come up with ideas on how to make the pool hopefully break even from operations, so our expenses will equal our revenue.”
He added that the council doesn’t want residents to hear some of the ideas and then get mad if they don’t happen.
We understand council members’ desire not to be misunderstood or to have the public cling to what might prove unworkable ideas. But that’s no excuse for meeting in private. There are better means to share such ideas.
State law doesn’t clearly define political strategy, which is the purpose of a caucus according to Indiana law. But interpreted in light of the rest of the Open Door Law, what the city council did violated the law, Britt said. The Open Door Law requires that city boards take official action, including discussing city projects or problems, at public meetings, he said.
“(The point is) not to chill political speech or to hinder or deter people from talking about political agendas behind closed doors. It’s to make discussions of substantive public business open to the public,” he said.
As we said, openness in deliberations and action are vital in a democracy. Governmental bodies should strive to meet not just the letter of Indiana’s Open Door Law but also its spirit.