The issue: The new year is a time for change

Our view: Local officials must pledge to obey state Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws

 

Making resolutions is part of the New Year's myth; somehow, resolving to quit a bad habit or adopt a good one has more power at the dawn of a new year. 

That being said, however, there is no better time than today for the boards of public institutions and elected officials of all kinds to honor the oaths they have taken to serve the tax-paying public by obeying state laws. Not just the ones that are convenient or those they agree with.

First must be a promise to actually learn about and then follow the state's Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts, the laws most abused by local officials in recent years.

These aren't as lofty as the Bill of Rights, perhaps, but they are the blue-collar bedrock that most effect the way public bodies do business and spend your tax dollars. 

The most recent buzzword is transparency, but it's more basic than that. In general, it means public bodies have to talk about public business at public meetings open to everyone. Contracts have to be available to anyone who wants to take the time to read them. Public bodies have to take votes in public. While they're sometimes allowed to talk to their attorneys or deal with personnel matters in private, nearly all votes that follow must be taken in public.

When Northwestern Michigan College trustees decided to begin taping their board meetings so members of the public could later see them, that was fine. But deciding to do so via a round of private emails not open to the public violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

State law says the public gets to watch public policy being made and gets to listen to elected officials talk about what they did and why. 

The law also says the public gets to know what kinds of rules and regulations public bodies adopt and why.

When Traverse City Area Public Schools declared that all surveillance tapes made on taxpayer-owned property with taxpayer-owned equipment were banned from the public, that was a too-sweeping claim. In essence, it would allow public officials to predetermine what the public can and can't see. 

Yes, videotapes that violate student privacy must be kept private. But declaring all such videos and other records out of bounds is outside the scope of the law and protects no one but the bureaucrats. That must change.

Decisions must be based on the premise that the public comes first and actions to curb public access must be an exception allowed, case by case, by law. Public schools don't belong to the people hired or elected to run them. They belong to the public; and how students are educated and disciplined must be subject to public oversight.

  

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