A Word From Woehlk: Meetings should serve the public

There are very few places I feel more pride about being an American than in a public board meeting.

It’s absolutely cheesy, but sometimes in those lulls that come along during most meetings — I know, hard to believe there can be a lull in a meeting — I can’t help but think how special it is that no matter where you go across the country, no matter if you’re in a small town of several dozen, or a county that’s home to millions, there’s always a public meeting just like the one I’m sitting in: a group of people, elected by those who live there, who get together in a room regularly to make decisions and hear each other’s opinions.

Seriously, how cool is that? I have a hard time coming up with an activity that, to its core, is more American.

Like every local newspaper reporter in the history of local newspaper reporters, the bread and butter of my job is going to these meetings so that people with real jobs don’t have to. Instead, you can read about what happened at each meeting whenever you’d like, and if there’s something that sticks out, you can come and offer your opinion and hear others’ without having to go to every single meeting that might affect you.

Both the journalists and the boards themselves exist to serve the public’s interest, but that doesn’t stop there from being a constant push-and-pull about what information the public should be allowed to have. Quite frankly, it would be shocking to find a public board or governing body that has not illegally withheld open records or illegally closed part of a meeting at some point.

Most of the time, it’s just a function of a judgment call, and the judgment comes down in favor of privacy and convenience. Other times, hey, people make mistakes. It happens. And in most cases, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference in the end anyway.

Still, I do wonder why I’ve never, not once, ever heard — or met anyone who has heard — someone in a board meeting say that they’d erred on the side of keeping a meeting open that really should have been closed. If every single public board exists to serve the public, and the aptly named Missouri Sunshine Laws are to be interpreted as liberally as possible to encourage transparency in government, shouldn’t there be at least a few “mistakes” that work in favor of openness? After all, one part of the Sunshine Laws you won’t find is a section that outlines the consequences for being too transparent, too honest with the public.

It certainly sounds like a small thing, something that only a nitpicky journalist (is there any other kind?) would think should be a high priority. But it’s my job to go to these meetings to ensure that the public’s interest is truly what’s being served in each and every one, and report back about what’s happening — otherwise, how would anyone know? The vast majority of the time, though, the public’s interests are being served.

But sometimes, boards or the people who work for them seem to forget that they serve the public first. It has become automatic for many boards to close meetings on certain topics wholesale, simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. And who can really say what happened in a meeting was legal or illegal if it happened in private anyway?

Talking about it in terms of what’s allowed and what’s legal, though, risks reducing the entire exercise to a game, an argument over rules about as meaningful as your sibling’s insistence that, you know, there’s nothing in the rules that says $500 should go on Free Parking. Closed and open meetings aren’t about the minutiae of law, and they are certainly not a game. They’re about something much simpler: Should our default be open doors, or closed doors? Are we asking if we can leave the doors open, or are we asking if we can close them?

Most transparency issues, really, aren’t intentional, they’re just complacency in disguise. And there’s an easy way to remedy this: Public board members should simply ask more questions. There’s nothing wrong with going into closed session or withholding proper documents, but regardless of how open and transparent your board’s practices already are, I encourage each and every member of a public board or governing body in Nodaway County to ask two simple questions both of yourself and everyone else in the room the next time you’re in a closed session or see one on your agenda:

Does every part of what we’re discussing need to be discussed in private? And, most importantly, why?

Once a week, or once a month, or a quarter, or a year, Americans gather in thousands of meetings in thousands of rooms across the country where anyone is welcome to come and find out what decisions are being made in their name by their peers, and offer their own points of view. Like I said, it’s hard for me to not feel a swell of pride in that tradition, carried out by every single little town and school in the nation as both a privilege and a responsibility that is an integral part of the most basic thread in the American tapestry.

But it’s harder to feel that way when you’re not allowed in the room.

Geoffrey Woehlk is a reporter at The Maryville Forum