As if journalists needed another reason to call for more open government, the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005 started Sunshine Week, a “national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”
Sunshine Week was actually last week, March 16-22. But this week has provided us with a couple of reminders about how various elected officials could easily improve their efforts to open up to the public.
It’s not exactly breaking news that Riverhead’s all-Republican Town Board meets in caucus from time to time. Precedent supports the legality of such meetings. Supervisor Sean Walter’s allegation that board members are discussing public business during the meetings, however — and the fact that board members are meeting so frequently — is noteworthy, as it appears to fly in the face of state open meetings laws.
Board members who attend the caucus meetings, as well as the current Riverhead Republican Committee chairman, deny the allegations, describing the meetings as discussions about the political impact of board members’ decisions and not the decisions themselves.
The timing the supervisor picked to bring all of this to light could be considered curious. He’s suffered the loss of a few votes on the public stage recently — likely stemming from discussions during these caucuses — so this could be construed as a political counter-punch. But there’s really no way for the public to know the whole truth unless the all-Republican Town Board stops meeting in caucus. And the only way to accomplish that, it would seem, would be to diversify the party affiliations of Town Board members.
Meanwhile, in the school district, a couple of instances this past week show room for improvement as well.
Superintendent Nancy Carney gave a thorough presentation Tuesday night about a $4 million bond proposal now set to go before voters in May, after which the school board voted to adopt it as a ballot proposition. But the proposal had never been publicly discussed at any previous school board meeting.
Without speaking on the merits of the bond itself, one might think these publicly elected officials — albeit volunteers — would want to inform and seek input from their constituents before setting the stage to borrow $4 million.
And following the presentation, it raises eyebrows to see a unanimous vote on such a costly plan without any discussion whatsoever — between members of the public and the school board or within the school board itself.
Another note from Tuesday night: The school board approved a plan to spend $456,000 from the district’s capital reserve fund right after closing a public hearing on the matter. While it’s not uncommon for public boards to adopt more mundane measures immediately following a public hearing, voters deserve more time to weigh in on $456,000 in expenses for a fund they voted to create.
So, in all, the school board may spend about $4.5 million with little public discussion or input from the people being asked to come up with the money.
If taxpayers in the town and school district feel they’re being increasingly marginalized when it comes to big decisions — and their leaders are opting to keep them out of the discussion to avoid headaches, slowdowns or the outright blockage of measures — then the public’s only recourse is to demand change through their votes.