Take governmentout of backrooms
Here's a problem and a goal for 2007: How do we make sure the Morgan County Commissioners abide by the state's open meeting law and conduct their business in public?
Many times through the years, we've challenged government groups when we believed they violated the "sunshine" law. In recent times, the Morgan County Commissioners have appeared to be the worst offenders locally, but they refuse to accept they're doing anything wrong.
We say "commissioners," but, these days, it's mostly Commissioners Glen Stotler and Thomas Swaim who feel the need to get together to discuss county business outside of scheduled meetings. And, when two of the three commissioners talk business privately, they form a quorum, which creates a legal problem. Who knows if they're scripting their next meeting or working out policies ahead of time to cut down on debate? Unfortunately, a fog descends when officials meet in secret.
Last June, we walked into the courthouse and found Stotler and Swaim talking with a businessman about the use of county radio towers for internet service. When we confronted them about the unannounced session, we were fed the gibberish that it was okay since the businessman, not them, had called the meeting. If this were true, the commissioners could meet any time about anything as long as they didn't set up the session.
We believe Stotler and Swaim were wrong in discussing a prospective deal involving county property outside of a scheduled meeting. By meeting privately with one person, they kept other business owners from knowing what was happening. We urged them to put countywide internet service out for bids, which is what they eventually did.
We were still wondering how to treat this situation when the courthouse burned. All fall, we laid back as we watched assortments of commissioners hold impromptu talks about moving in trailers and dealing with office problems. We rationalized it as an emergency situation. Still, we were edgy about giving them so much leeway.
On December 14, we heard that Swaim and Stotler were meeting in the county record room. We walked in and, sure enough, there they were. Of course, we don't know what they were discussing since they clammed up.
A few days later – December 18 – we found Stotler and Swaim again holding an unannounced get-together. This time they were with the architect who is designing the new courthouse. It certainly wasn't an emergency and it was a subject that the public is deeply interested in. We grabbed a camera and snapped them in action so everyone could see.
Swaim later insisted it wasn't really a meeting. He said they were just getting a report from the architect. Well, if that's not really a meeting, then are the commissioners really the commissioners? Sounds like "Alice in Wonderland," doesn't it?
The damage that private meetings do to public trust cannot be rated, but it is real. If the public doesn't know what their elected officials are doing, they fear the worst.
So, what is to be done? It is against the law for a quorum of commissioners to meet privately and discuss county business. They can be charged with an offense or a judge could be asked to issue an injunction against such meetings. We have always avoided the legal route because it is costly and the citizens will no doubt end up paying the bill.
Our hope is that you, the Morgan County citizen, will let the commissioners know you expect them to walk in the sunshine and act as independent agents, not meet in the back room.
They say people get the government they deserve. If you keep looking the other way while politicians work out their marching orders in private, that's the kind of government you'll get.