Open public meetings of governing bodies, from local school board to Congress, are a hallmark of the American brand of democracy.
Representatives of the people discuss, debate, and vote in full view of the people, save for select items such as confidential employee matters or sensitive negotiations that the public has agreed can be discussed privately, when warranted.
It’s a system built not only for transparency but engagement. When members of the public know what’s going on they can choose to contribute. Open deliberations allow the people to evaluate the effectiveness of their elected officials in representing their priorities, an essential element of having an informed electorate. Open meetings also are meant to reassure the public that the people hired to carry out governmental tasks are doing so thoughtfully, effectively, and in accord with the public’s needs and desires.
That’s how the system should ideally operate, but for it to function properly, meetings must be conducted in a manner that promote open deliberations and input directly from the public. When that doesn’t happen, the public loses its ability to understand what’s being done in their name. And that matters, even in a time of pandemic.
Conducting meetings via a streaming service helps provide access without the accompanying health risks, but if they’re not conducted in a manner that’s accessible to the general public, they provide little actual transparency.
The most recent meeting of the ISD 2142 school board offers a case in point.
Superintendent Reggie Engebritson gave a 60-second overview of the district’s plan to transition to distance learning for the week immediately prior to and the week immediately following winter break.
Members of the board asked no questions, even though members of the public certainly might have had any number of them about the relative need for distance learning in the various ISD 2142 schools.
And what of the challenges of internet access that the board was familiar with from the district’s encounter with distance learning in the spring? While needs have been surveyed and it’s been mentioned that the district was trying to address them, wouldn’t a question about the status of those connections seem reasonable when switching back to the model where they were a problem?
With no discussion, any public viewing the online meeting received little insight into the rationale for the decision, insight that was readily available had board members kept in mind that open meetings are meant to provide clarity.
There was more of the same to come.
Board Chairman Dan Manick then rolled through a series of agenda items in quick fashion, asking members if they’d reviewed the information in their packets, asking if there were any comments, and then taking the roll call votes. Each time there was no discussion from board members.
Even items that had prompted concerns at earlier meetings, such as Indian Policies and Procedures, received short shrift. Did the recommendations made to the board include revisions to address those concerns? There was no way for the public to know.
This isn’t something unique to ISD 2142. Such rubber-stamping is far too common in other governmental bodies as well, and it’s not all that surprising. Board and council members have the benefit of getting packets of materials ahead of meetings. Armed with that information, and barring anything controversial, it’s easy to see how items can pass by without discussion or questions. Make a motion, vote, done, move on.
But such a process does a disservice to those who reasonably expect that actions by government bodies should be handled in such a way that the public has at least a basic understanding of what an issue is and the rationale behind recommendations and decisions.
One solution is for meeting agendas to include a summary paragraph describing more fully what each item is about. The city of Tower now routinely includes detailed summaries of most agenda items, including their financial impact, which has been a significant improvement both for council members as well as the public.
But it all begins with board members, councilors, commissioners, etc. remembering who they work for and making a commitment to conduct themselves in meetings in a manner that allows their constituents the information and insights they deserve. It is the people’s business, after all.