Let’s start with this fundamental: Public officials serve the public.
They are not rulers or authoritarian figures. They are employed by those who elect or appoint them.
Having started there, consider public meetings in the state.
Anyone who attends a public meeting in Georgia is likely to hear a series of admonishments about speaking in public.
The list sounds as though the public body is reining in a lot of out-of-control dissidents who show up to disrupt meetings.
That is not the case. The list is, unfortunately, for the extremes. Only a few folks who come to castigate public officials rant and rave. But the list is aimed at those few.
The list includes signing up, stating your name and address. Talking only three minutes (in most cases; occasionally it is five minutes) and for a total of some number, in some cases as few as 15 or 20 minutes. In some cases, those who want to speak are required to let an official (city or school) know by the previous week.
Some of the rules are absurd. That one about letting them know the week before is especially irksome and unconstitutional.
However, the list has a long and generally accepted history in Georgia. It is promoted by the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia School Boards Association. It is legal, according to court rulings.
Those two groups are most concerned with “orderly” meetings. They care little about individuals.
I’m all for order and careful language. People ought to voice their views in rational sentences. They should voice opinions in clear and measured tones.
They should not, however, be servile and bland. Folks who have opposing views to the organized bodies ought to say so. Calling elected officials corrupt and concerned with their own interests is OK in a representative democracy. Calling them jackasses or worse should not be part of the public discourse.
Georgia’s open meetings and open records laws are far too weak. They allow public bodies too much authority.
The exceptions granted for closed, secret sessions are far too broad and far too common. Why does a school board need to have a closed session to hire cafeteria workers or bus drivers or teachers? Why is that not the responsibility of the principal and superintendent?
Members of a public body, up to a majority, can meet privately. That means members of the city council, school board or county commission can meet every day if they want, a couple of folks at a time to determine what will occur at the next public meeting.
Why can public officials talk about public business in a non-public setting? They should not.
Yea, I’m a bit of a zealot on the subject.
One of my cautions here is that our country was started in secret. The constitutional convention met for months in secret before producing the Constitution that states then voted on.
Of course, that was a different age. Many of those men, and it was all white men, thought it was OK to own human beings. The idea of a woman serving in that group would have brought gales of laughter and then crashing denunciation.
It’s different now and it should be.
Public information and public meetings should be just that – public. Too often information is jealously guarded, as though it belongs to one person. It does not. It is ours, and it should be as widely available as possible.
It should be available because we pay for it, if for no other reason. But it most obviously should be available because it is public. There is provision in the open records law for a “custodian” of records. That is what any public official is, the keeper of the records.
Public bodies should always, and first, ask, “how do we provide more access, more openness, in our government?” The question should not be: “what is the law?”
It is our government.
Ron Bridgeman is a reporter for Mainstreet Newspapers. Send email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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