Editorial: Transparency In Government

Transparency in government is key to promoting accountability of officials and making sure that citizens have information about what their government is doing. It is something that citizens want and government boards and agencies should want and desire.
Where does transparency start? It starts with a board or council’s agenda. A board or council’s agenda may seem like an insignificant piece of paper to some, but it is the public’s guide to what business their board or council is taking up and by being published ahead of the meeting and adhered to by the public body, it gives the citizens an opportunity to know with certainty what items are coming up so they can attend the meeting to hear more or to seek out their own information about a topic.
The public has a right to know what issues are going to be heard or discussed at a public meeting. Catch-all categories like council reports or citizens reports don’t reflect the true spirit of transparency. In fact, they harm it. Literally any topic could be discussed, and it leaves open the possibility that any issue could be voted on without the proper notice to the public and often without any real intention by a board or council to do the public’s business in the dark.
Board or council members should be asked to list for the agenda as specifically as possible which topics they plan to bring up in their reports. If any member of the public wishes to speak on a particular topic, they should be asked to submit a request and list their topic as specifically as possible. This creates a more business-like format for all concerned.
Any honest and forthright person, whether it is a council member or citizen, with a legitimate concern or issue that they wish to speak about should be more than glad to specifically list the matter on which they wish to speak.
However, too often, catch-all categories and vague agenda items become opportunities for council members to showboat or politic or for citizens to ramble on about personal feelings about board or council members or other non-relevant matters rather than address real issues. Board members, council members, and citizens should be keenly aware that board or council meetings are business meetings not public forums.
A 2019 S.C. Attorney General’s Opinion addresses catch-all categories on a public agenda. The request letter for the opinion “asks whether a catch-all agenda entry, such as ‘Other Administrative Business,’ could be used to allow a public body to address issues which are not otherwise noticed on the agenda.” The opinion states, “It is this Office’s opinion that a court would likely find that such a practice violates the S.C. FOIA.” Further, it states referencing another opinion that “adequate notice to the public at large is an integral part of the public meeting concept; a meeting cannot be deemed to be public merely because its doors are opened to the public if the public is not properly informed.” Later in the opinion, it also states that “An agenda item description that is too vague to provide the public notice would not comply with the purpose and framework of the S.C. FOIA…Therefore, it is this Office’s opinion that a court may well find the use of a catch-all agenda item is too vague to provide public notice and violates the S.C. FOIA.”
While this is an Attorney General’s opinion and names another type of catch-all category, it speaks to the importance and need for transparency on agendas and properly noticing the public about all matters to be addressed.
It should also be noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight said that “The Constitution does not grant to members of the public generally the right to be heard by public bodies making decisions of policy.” Exceptions would include public hearings such as a public hearing on a budget, an ordinance, a zoning matter, etc.
The public has other avenues to address their issues and air their grievances, but often a phone call to an individual’s representative can direct a member of the public to someone who can resolve an issue or give them the answers they seek without a need to come before a full board or council.
All boards and councils are encouraged to make transparency a priority starting with a complete and specific agenda. Those who have catch-all categories are encouraged to do away with them and go to a format that lists all matters to be discussed. It will not only increase transparency, but it should result in more orderly meetings. The agenda is the first step to making sure true transparency and true light shines on the business of our public bodies.

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