Closing the door on democracy
What’s it mean? What are the issues? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What, if anything, should be done about it?
For concerned citizens, trying their level best to do their civic duty and participate in our democracy, these are just a few of the questions that arise whenever something unusual comes before an elected body.
Unfortunately for Kansans, antiquated state laws, many of them not even followed anyway, are keeping far too many of our citizens in a form of political darkness more befitting Stalinist Russia than 21st century America.
The firing — which is what any requested resignation is — of Florence’s longtime city clerk is but the latest in a growing trend of governmental bodies in the county retreating behind loopholes in state law, or ignoring it altogether, to behave as if only they have the wisdom necessary to determine how the government that we pay for and give our consent to should function on our behalf.
Confronting the highest ranking appointed officer of any governmental unit is not something that should be done behind closed doors or in exchanges outside of open public meetings.
“Personnel matters” are things like having to remind a janitor to regularly take showers and wash his or her clothes so as not to offend co-workers with body odor. That’s a private matter, and the worker’s privacy needs to be respected by handling such concerns it behind closed doors.
When the issue is about policy, however, there should be no claim that public discussion would violate the employee’s privacy, which is the sole reason for allowing closed-door discussions.
States with more modern laws make specific exceptions for discussions involving top officials who serve, as city clerks and school superintendents do, as statutory officers for their organizations.
In those cases, the public’s right to know outweighs any right the employee may have to privacy.
Those states also make it clear that privacy is a right of the employee, not the employer. Every employee called before a closed-door session — even the stinking janitor — has the absolute right to force the doors to be reopened if that’s what he or she wants.
Other states also make it a priority to encourage rather than discourage citizen involvement.
In most, a governmental body cannot vote on anything unless that specific issue is clearly included on an agenda distributed to the public well in advance of the meeting.
Members of the public also have an absolute right in most states to comment on such proposals before a vote is taken. Requiring them to file a request, listing their topic, even before they know what will be considered is illegal in many if not most states.
Nationwide, state laws generally are silent on how much of a citizen’s comments must be included in official minutes. However, they are clear on the fact that whatever changes may be made to drafted minutes — including what might be deleted from them — must be documented in the minutes for the meeting in which the changes were made.
They also typically require that a complete, verbatim transcript or recording be kept for all closed-door sessions so a judge, if asked, may review the recording, determine whether it was proper to have conducted it behind closed doors, and immediately release the recording to the public if the meeting was deemed to have been illegally closed.
Kansas law doesn’t require many of these democratic safeguards. It should. Our legislators are to blame for that. And one reason we may have so few legislators willing to take the lead on this issue is because there’s widespread public apathy about running for office — which, a recent study confirms, tends to be strongly associated with the degree to which the public is kept in the dark. Secrecy breeds more secrecy.
Even if state law doesn’t require these steps, there’s absolutely nothing to prevent an individual governmental unit from adopting its own, more modern policy regarding openness.
Maybe then we can answer some of the questions engaged citizens might have whenever something like the forced departure of a city clerk, immediately on the heels of a sudden shift in city accounting firms, occurs.
Adopting our own, more modern local standards for openness in government is the American thing to do. Otherwise, maybe we all should move to Russia.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified July 31, 2019