The Pragmatic Sophist


Rick Sorrels

Open government or a secret society?

The Public has a “right to know”. Elected and appointed officials are responsible to the People. The Public does NOT yield their sovereignty to elected officials. These principles are codified in statutes by the Open Public Meeting Act (OPMA) and the Public Records Act.

Actions prohibited by law include secret meetings, secret ballots, secret deliberations (discussions), withholding documents from the Public, etc. These prohibitions affect almost anything that a government official does. The list of “exceptions” is short. There is no right to privacy when there is a “legitimate concern to the public.”

Human nature is to conceal “mistakes” and anything that would be questioned. The State Attorney General and the State Auditor are in constant battle with local governments who frequently misunderstand, or, through intent or ignorance, violate their mandate with the Public.

The Courts have ruled that serial discussions between individual Board Members, who want to exchange information on an issue outside of official meetings in person, by email, or other means is a violation of OPMA.

The statutes provide for “executive sessions”, outside of public oversight, in very limited circumstances, but when a motion is made bringing it to the table for consideration or vote, the “secrecy” of an executive session is lifted. The statutes require that all deliberations on an issue must be made public.

When a local government comes out of executive session, and a motion is made and voted upon without any discussion or explanation, there is an obvious failure to comply with the statutes.

Federal law requires that individual rights to privacy exist for certain medical records and health conditions, but no such rights exist for personnel or disciplinary records. The State Ombudsman for OPMA and Public Disclosure states that the public has an absolute right to be informed of inappropriate actions by government officials and employees.

The executive officer for one of our local municipal governments has just left office under a “gag” agreement, where all parties are prohibited from saying anything “disparaging”. A similar “gag” agreement was used with his predecessor. A “gag” agreement of any sort is anathema (intensely opposed) to the concept of open government.

The Key Peninsula has experienced some good elected officials, but also some who were tyrants, ineffective, or retired-in-place.

Our local municipal governments are the lowest rung on the political ladder. Our officials all enter office with the best of intentions to do good work, but they all lack the experience of a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan, and only one local elected official is remembered to have moved on to another elected office.

If you think you can do better, by all means run for office. Most positions on the ballot are unopposed. Otherwise, we can only hope that our public officials continue to improve to become better and better at serving the Public, as the law requires.