Comfort vs. Sunshine

Linn County Board of Supervisors candidate Dave Machacek dropped by this week for an editorial board session. We’ve had a parade of local candidates in recently as we decide on endorsements.

The session was pretty standard, but one moment still bugs me. During a discussion on how Machacek might like to change the way the board runs, he said one of the best things about the new five-member board is that two members can get together in private to hash out ideas without breaking open meetings laws. Two of five does not a quorum make.

He then gave arguments I’ve heard many times from officials and candidates over the years. He wants to be able to brainstorm and kick around ideas without seeing it in the newspaper. It can be downright uncomfortable, you see, floating ideas in front of the prying eyes of press and public. Public policy crafted in private is so much easier.

Sounds innocent enough. But I’d like to make a couple points.

First, the process by which public officials arrive at public decisions is every bit as important as the final proposal or vote. That’s really the reason we have sunshine laws, so that taxpayers can understand how decisions are arrived at, who influenced them and why they’re being made. It’s for that reason that I’m not terribly sympathetic of officials searching for comfy settings to brainstorm.

Second, a one-on-one meeting between supervisors sounds OK until you realize that it only takes three such “legal” get-togethers before all five supervisors have brainstormed their way to consensus. I’ve seen plenty of public entities operate like this. A few phone calls, a friendly cup of coffee and voila, everything’s all wrapped up with a bow.

I don’t mean to jump on Machacek or suggest that his opponent, Supervisor Jim Houser, is a paragon of openness. But it troubles me when a candidate, unprompted, starts talking about the virtues of carrying on business behind the scenes before he’s even in office.

I think a five member board should improve openness and stoke more public debate, rather than create and new avenue for backroom deal making. That’s just my opinion.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Comfort vs. Sunshine

  1. Wayne

    Heck, word on the street is the current Board has already practiced these “private” brainstorming meetings. They’ve gotten it nearly mastered by now. At least with 5 Sup.’s it’ll be a little more on the up & up!

  2. Tom

    I’m not sure where or how the viola figures in – could you have, perhaps, meant violin or voila?

  3. tdorman

    Sorry, Tom. Typo. Should be Voila

  4. Brent Oleson

    Remember just a week ago in your blog where you wrote the following:

    “Instead, she (Linda Langston) said deliberations are in their “infancy” on whether a brand new building should be built to house county, city and school district offices, and perhaps the chamber, Convention and Visitors Bureau and some arts and cultural functions. She rejected my use of the term “government cathedral,” saying instead “we just need a building that works well.”

    Good luck trying to get into those meetings (plus, their “infant” meetings, the press apparently needs to wait until their full grown “adults” before you get to write about the deliberations). This board and the association that represents county government have fought “sunshine” laws for years, and defeated a legislative proposal just last year by watering it down to nothing.

    This board is anything but open. There is very little debate in Supervisors meetings because it appears as if it is all hashed out before the “public” meeting ever takes place. This problem was especially pronounced during the flood crisis. Things need to change.

  5. Wow. That is amazing that he would say that at a review by the board of a newspaper!!!

    Secrecy we don’t need.

  6. Steve

    I vote for the bleaching agent sunshine, everytime! Not only for the supervisors, but for the Cedar Rapids city council as well. Somewhere there must have been some discussion that never saw the light of day in most of the 100 per cent approval of many decisions. Especially those where the city spent buckets of money. I recall before the flood we were broke? Now because there is a new stash of cash, no mention of frugality exists? Whats up with that? Certainly, someone was elected to watch the purse strings, but we are getting unanimous approval of huge amounts of tax payer money being spent on many non-essential items. And I am still waiting to hear why so many city employees have city credit cards and where is the over sight in that? Yes, turn on the lights, lets see where the rats and cock roaches are!

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