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GOVERNMENT MUST STOP MAKING DECISIONS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

SHARE GOVERNMENT MUST STOP MAKING DECISIONS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

As children, most of us were taught certain rules of social interaction. For example, it isn't polite to chew with an open mouth, and certain things are not polite to bring up in mixed company. Do not, for instance, ask someone how much money they make or whether they've applied for a job elsewhere.

Those rules are fine so far as everyday life and neighborhood get-togethers are concerned. But, other than the chewing part, they don't apply when the subject is public officials and the workings of government. That's a tough thing for many to understand, particularly those in city governments that get little publicity.Orem learned this the hard way earlier this year when, at the end of a two-year-long lawsuit, a judge ruled city officials should have been more open about who was applying for the job of city manager. But now the city has a chance to redeem itself. The manager it hired secretly two years ago is gone, and the time has come for an open process to choose his successor. Here's hoping city officials do things right this time.

They didn't two years ago when a reporter for the Provo Daily Herald asked for the names, resumes, cover letters and applications of the four finalists for the job. The city recorder rejected the request. The reporter appealed to the acting city manager, then to the City Council, with no luck. Finally, with the help of the Society of Professional Journalists, he sued the city.

In these kinds of cases, the arguments of public officials are as predictable as a car dealer's sales pitch. Government can't run smoothly if personnel matters are placed under a microscope, they will say. Besides, nobody decent would apply, particularly if they knew their current employers would get wind of it.

Fourth District Judge Anthony W. Schofield didn't buy those arguments, particularly after city officials admitted to parading the final four candidates in front of business and civic leaders without swearing anyone to secrecy. Also, the city offered none of the candidates a guarantee of confidentiality. Clearly, officials fretted over only a select few people learning who the finalists were - the media and the general public.

Governments nationwide are struggling with openness these days. Fortunately, many of them now adhere to strict policies of disclosure. The results have been reassuring.

For one thing, the list of qualified applicants hasn't diminished when the public is involved. At the University of Michigan, officials cringed when a court ruled they had to openly choose a new president. But, as it turned out, each of the four finalists was someone who held a prestigious position at another major university or college.

That's because the people who apply for high-profile positions not only are human, they tend to have rather large egos. If anything, a person's stature increases when a newspaper or broadcast station finds that he or she is talented enough to be a finalist for a high-profile position.

The other advantage to openness is that potentially vital information often comes to light. In Florida, for example, the town of Wilton Manors rejected an applicant for city manager when it was learned he had been accused of sexual harassment and forced to leave a previous job. In this information age, reporters and others with Internet access quickly can check backgrounds and find things of which city officials are unaware.

The overriding principle here has nothing to do with being nosy or impolite. It has everything to do with accountability. In any corporation, the owner has a natural right to know how much his employees earn and how people are hired. When the business is a government, its owners are the people. Their collective rights are every bit as inclusive as those inherent to the owners of private corporations.

Orem already has shown signs it doesn't understand this. No one will say why City Manager Michael Dyal is leaving. Nor will they say whether he quit or was fired.

But my purpose is not to pick on Orem. Most governments in Utah need a primer on openness. For example, Southern Utah University soon will pick a new president, as will the University of Utah. Their processes should be public, as should those of school districts that choose new superintendents.

Sometimes, watching government grind away can be as appetizing as watching someone chew with an open mouth. But a government that hires a manager openly sends a strong message to the successful candidate - a message about accountability. And that message can go far toward establishing the proper relationship with the new manager's ultimate bosses, the people.