The public is not smart enough to participate in governance. It’s a belief that is endemic among elected officials, and it recently received the blessing of the state Supreme Court.
The court was called upon to decide whether the Montgomery County Board of Education violated the Open Meetings Act when it took elaborate steps to prevent public input on its selection of a superintendent.
State law prevents a quorum of public officials from meeting without notifying the public in advance and allowing the public to attend.
The Montgomery County board had seven members. Instead of holding a single meeting with all seven in attendance — which clearly would have required an open meeting — it held three separate meetings, on the same day, at 15-minute intervals.
The board president attended all three meetings, with two different board members attending one meeting each.
Because none of the meetings included a quorum of four members, the Supreme Court ruled the transparent subterfuge did not violate the Open Meetings Law.
Anticipating such games, the Open Meetings Act also requires public notice when a quorum of a committee meets. While the court acknowledged each of the three groupings constituted a committee, it adopted a strained interpretation of the law and concluded a quorum was not present in each committee meeting.
The court should reconsider the case. If it fails to do so, the state Legislature should amend the law.
The decision invites public officials to come up with increasingly blatant tactics for excluding the people from decisions. It reduces the accountability of elected officials, and communicates the message that the public is a pesky inconvenience that is best closeted in ignorant silence.
Sometimes secret meetings of elected officials are for corrupt purposes, but usually they represent a lack of trust in voters. We are not intelligent enough to understand that hiring decisions are complex, the officials figure. We might prefer a losing candidate and make an unseemly fuss.
For all the perceived deficiencies of voters, they elect the decision makers who choose to exclude them. Through their taxes, the public pays the salaries of those the officials hire.
Elected officials should be looking for ways to include the public in their decisions, not trying to circumvent the laws requiring them to do so.
Secret meetings — whether or not technically legal — are an insult to the people.
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