Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Transparency Game

In case you missed it, here is Alex Grant's “The Transparency Game” that appeared in last week's edition (10/07/10) of the Longmeadow News (with permission of the author and thanks to the Longmeadow News).

If there is one value all candidates to the Select Board and the School Committee pay homage to, it is "transparency." Once elected, however, some town politicians act as if their passion for "transparency," openness, and the free flow of information to the public was rhetorical excess. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," but for elected town officials, that sunlight is seen as a distracting, harsh glare that takes their attention away from the important matters they need to discuss.

And so it was recently that the Select Board decided to do an offsite "retreat" at the church across the street from its regular meeting room. The explicit purpose of this change in venue was to rid Board members of those pesky cameras that televise their regular board meetings. Board Chair Robert Aseltine thought the retreat was a dandy idea because there could have a "more relaxed" conversation without the cameras. Aseltine noted that the deliberation process is "affected by being on camera." Board member Robert Barkett said that it was his experience that elected officials "tend to speak differently" offsite and that the conversations are "completely different" without the cameras.

Hearing that, curious minds might have wondered, "so what do they discuss when they're off camera?" Or, are the views expressed at their regular meetings so different from their true beliefs? Having piqued our interest, the pro-retreat Board members of Christine Swanson, Aseltine, and Barkett went on to assure the public that this was no retreat of theirs from transparency or the open meeting law. After all, they are literally unable to bar town residents from attending any board meeting, whether styled as a retreat or not. They even went so far as to say that the retreat was really just as open, especially since they would have to post minutes and folks could attend in person (albeit when many are out of town on vacation).

Got that? The retreat, according to the Select Board, was essential to create the privacy necessary to have the candid and "completely different" conversations they needed to have. But, the retreat was also just as open and transparent as any other meeting, even though virtually nobody would ever see it.

Editor's note: There is a web video and meeting "notes" for this August 23 meeting and it was posted on LongmeadowBuzz.  See Select Board Sets FY12 Goals.

At the August 23 retreat, certain Board members voiced support for subcommittees, a structure unfamiliar to the Select Board but very much a part of how the School Committee does business. And now, it seems all but assured that there will be a Finance Subcommittee and an Operations Subcommittee. Board members Mark Gold and Paul Santaniello are opposed.

Most town residents probably view the legislative process of the Select Board as inside baseball, unworthy of attention. However, this subcommittee idea will diminish what the public knows about the budget and other vital town issues. If the School Committee subcommittees are any guide, they will not be televised, their meetings will be mostly unpublicized, and their meeting minutes (if any are kept) will not be readily available. The subcommittees, in turn, will present their findings and recommendations at the regular meetings, and those will be accepted without much discussion.

I wrote about subcommittees last year, and I noted that in July 2009, there had been no meeting minutes of the School's Financial subcommittee posted online since 2007. Those minutes, are now available, but there is nothing posted for the bevy of other School subcommittees. There are five such subcommittees this year, but there are no meeting minutes posted for any of them.

Recently, the School Building Committee just went four months without posting its meeting minutes, and the last posted Select Board meeting minutes are from over three months ago. Meanwhile, Jim Moran, the erstwhile town webmaster who still endeavors to provide information about town events on his own websites, has been refused access to the town's press releases.

All of this points to a trend toward keeping town business more obscure to ordinary voters. This penchant for privacy stems from the belief on the part of some town politicians that our local government would be run more intelligently if insulated from the prying eyes of the public. And make no mistake, by doing the minimum and grudgingly providing information about their affairs online, the Select Board, or any other board, can drastically reduce the amount of attention it receives. The only way to make sure town government is truly open is by holding politicians accountable at the ballot box for their pledges of transparency. Otherwise, the doublespeak will just go on.

Alex J. Grant

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