In America, freedom often means being at liberty to make an informed choice. Hence the freedom of the press, speech and public assembly. And over the past few years, there have been several "dust-ups" between the press and public servants over which "assemblies" should be private, which public. The most recent skirmish involved closed school board meetings.
But now an audit has spurred Utah's legislators into action. Because of the vagaries of the open meetings law, Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, plans to posit a bill in 2006 that would require recordings of executive sessions and the training of new officials. Although the bill was prompted by school boards, it would apply to all public meetings from mosquito to graffiti abatement.
We applaud Rep. Harper and see the bill as way for more people to make more informed decisions.
The Utah Open Meetings Act does have loopholes, of course. When the health or character of an individual is debated, the public can be held at bay, for example. And when bids and real estate purchases are in play, leadership boards often pull back into private sessions. But too many school boards were using the exceptions to justify shutting out the press and others. And eight boards were not even keeping written minutes of the closed sessions, which undermines any notion of accountability. Now, instead of hand-written minutes, which almost by necessity are selective, recording devices will keep track of all activity in a meeting. Those tapes will remain secret unless a judge needs them to issue a ruling. An amendment to the bill would also force newly elected officials to be trained about Utah's open meeting laws.
There will be some grumbling. Some will say that taping every nuance and voice inflection will put a damper on candid discussion. But when public funding, public interest and public servants are involved, the public should be present. Citizens may not always have the right to know everything their leaders think, but they definitely have a right to know what they say.
When one opts for public service, just the notion of keeping the people's business from the people should be anathema.
Democracy has need of all the truth.
Without it, opinions and choices will be based on incomplete information. Freedom gets hamstrung.
And if Utah's leaders can't stand to have their opinions about the people's business on public record, perhaps they are in the wrong business.