As published in the Record Journal, Sunday November 20, 2011
This week’s FROM WALLINGFORD was written by Mike Brodinsky a former town councilor from Wallingford, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee, and host of public access show “Citizen Mike”
If you can’t catch the show on TV you can catch it online on their Video On Demand page.
After spending more than an hour behind closed doors on Tuesday night, the Town Council summarily considered a very big collective bargaining agreement between the Board of Education and the teachers’ union. Unfortunately, the Council did not follow an open and transparent process.
One of the precepts of a democracy is that people have the right to watch their government in action and learn how and why their officials make decisions. Usually, that is done through a free press which reports on the doings of government.
If too much is done behind closed doors, however, voters cannot know how thorough and thoughtful their representatives have been. Were the public officials acting honestly and reasonably under the circumstances? Was the public interest protected? Were the outcomes scripted and orchestrated?
It’s not that easy to be a public official. The decision-making process can make a legislator/councilor uncomfortable, in part because the public search for information, logic, and wisdom can appear clumsy. An unguarded comment made, or question asked in good faith in the course of the legislative process, can be seized upon, taken out of context, and published. In tackling an issue, as new data develops, positions can change. An approach that seemed very reasonable one hour, may look embarrassing the next. And unfortunately, some in politics use the public arena to make themselves look good by making another look bad. A politician, therefore, can be made to pay a price unfairly. Yes, democracy is sloppy.
I understand why some public officials may want to keep their work as private as possible. It’s a matter of self protection. They may want a more comfortable venue for decision making. On occasion there could be more sinister reasons for wanting privacy. But no one wants the perception that the real work of legislators is done in a “smoke filled room.”
To address abuses, years ago, the Federal government and state legislatures enacted “open meeting laws” that require the public’s business be done in public except in very narrow circumstances that have nothing to do with the comfort level of the public officials. In Connecticut, these rules are collected in the Freedom of Information Act. It states that meetings of a public body, like a Town Council, generally speaking are to be open to the public.
The Act lists exceptions to this rule which are intended to be in the public’s interest, too. One of the exceptions is that if a Town is engaged in labor negotiations it shouldn’t be required to publicly talk about the negotiations and give away its strategy to the other side. That talk can be done in private, in what we call an “executive session.”
By Tuesday night, however, the Board Of Education’s negotiation strategy on the collective bargaining agreements had already run its course. The Wallingford Board of Education and the teachers’ union already had a signed agreement. It called for an increase in salaries of 6.21 percent over three years, costing $2.75 million, and lots of other complicated terms. Having placed the matter on the agenda for consideration, the Council’s job was to debate and decide in public whether the labor contract was good enough to accept or bad enough to reject. I would have expected a rigorous questioning and some public debate airing all sides of the issue.
Instead, the Council and representatives of the Board of Education spent more than an hour behind closed doors. Maybe they spent the entire time talking strategy. But if they had a full and frank discussion about what the agreement provided and what it didn’t provide, and the costs and savings associated with various provisions, that conversation should have been in an open meeting. The public needed to hear it all. Obviously, the Council disagreed.
Just one week after the election, I am looking for a public official who will champion open government. Better luck next time.