What good is it to have a “public meeting” when the meeting is held at a time when most of the public cannot attend? Legislative bodies that make decisions on what you can do with your property and fiscal bodies that decide how government will spend the money it forcibly confiscates from you too often meet during the work day, when most people cannot attend those meetings.
Last summer, I wrote a guest editorial for the local newspaper urging Monroe County and Bloomington city government to schedule meetings when the public can attend. (You can see my editorial here and read follow-up posts here and here.) I had hoped this would become an issue in the campaign, but that did not happen – mostly because the newspaper failed to ask the candidates who were running for office about their opinion on the issue.
This should not be a difficult issue. If elected officials or appointees to local government boards and commissions do not want to make the commitment to meet when their constituents can observe in person, then they should not run for office or accept those commission appointments. It is very difficult to have sympathy for public servants who find it too inconvenient to actually serve the public.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that city and county governments around the state are likely to voluntarily move the meetings of elected officials to a time after 6:00 p.m. for a variety of reasons – effectively shutting out public participation in government by the taxpayers who fund their budgets and who will live under the legislation they pass. So how can we move forward to ensure that the state’s open door law means something by having the door be open when the public can walk through it?
What we need here is reform at the state level. The state legislature should start by making it illegal for any local government elected body to meet before 6:00 p.m. Ideally, this should apply to boards and commissions as well, but the first priority should be to enable more public scrutiny of elected officials as they decide budgets and legislation. This does not need to be implemented immediately, as local government can be given a couple years to change their schedules to allow for more public participation. The 2014 legislative session would be a perfect time to begin debating this issue.