As the Beaver County Times continues to challenge county government and other public officials and agencies for greater access to public information, we are reminded of Patrick Henry’s words: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
While BCT editor Shane Fitzgerald praises the Commonwealth’s overall commitment to open government, he points out (with legal action sometimes) that many local public officials seem to have not gotten the memo. Perhaps they just don’t care or know about their legal obligation towards ensuring the public’s right to know. Who is to say? The results are the same.
We, the people, recognize—and rightfully fume—at unwarranted government secrecy; it’s simmering and serious tyranny against us.
Every citizen should understand the limits of government secrecy and the laws that protect them from being shut out of political and legal decision making processes. Thankfully, there are abundant educational resources available to citizens regarding our open government statutes. The PA Freedom of Information Coalition is a good source of information, and so are the Office of Open Records and the PA Open Government Guide from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. The Beaver County Times is a good source of information, too. Just pick up the phone and call Shane Fitzgerald (724-775-3200).
But what are the greatest threats to open government facing West Mayfield residents? (These might be the kind of issues that prompt a phone call from the Beaver County Times). Here are the top three:
- Secret Meetings. Borough officials must make their meetings (including planning and decision-making sessions) open to the public. The law states that official action and deliberations (discussions) by a quorum of the members of an agency (at least 4 members of council) shall take place at a meeting open to the public. In all meetings of agencies, the vote of each member who actually votes on any resolution, rule, order, regulation, ordinance or the setting of official policy must be publicly cast and, in the case of roll call votes, recorded.
- Abuse of Executive Session. Borough officials must have a legitimate, legally-acceptable reason to conduct business in executive session. While the session proceedings may remain confidential, the reason (or subject), of course, must be made known to the public and documented in the official meeting minutes. PA Courts have ruled that “an agency must give the reason for adjourning into executive session prior to holding the closed door meering so that the public knows why the meeting is closed. ”Personnel issue” or other such vague reasons for executive session are not sufficient; more details must be provided and stated in the minutes.
- Lack of Records. Borough officials are responsible for providing a written account of public meetings—called meeting minutes. Such information must be sufficiently, accurately, and truthfully recorded, kept on file, and made available to the public upon request.
Of course, the greatest threat to government openness—known even to the founders of democracy–is an apathetic citizenry. As Plato said, “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” Good and honest government in West Mayfield will exist to the degree its citizens are not indifferent to–and insistent upon–open government.
Thomas Jefferson would agree; in a democracy the Press has a duty to reveal and question the workings of government. Sometimes, a little force is necessary, as when the Beaver County Times recently filed a criminal complaint against county commissioners–a warning to all elected officials that open government will not be denied.