The standing practice of city and county government of holding out-of-town retreats is not illegal.
However, it is poor government.
Taking the people’s business away from the people, while not a violation of the law, is a violation of the public trust.
When city councils, county commissions and boards of education go to another city or county for a one- or two-day retreat, they know citizens will not follow them.
Most of them likely do not even consider the implications of the practice or think about the message it sends to the people they are chosen to represent.
Citizens not only have the right to know what decisions their elected officials reach, they have every right to know how they reach those decisions.
Deliberations of the public’s business should always be before the public.
Local governments can argue the retreats are open and that they send out notices of those out-of-town gatherings, but that does not mean they are truly accessible.
In fact, whether they admit it or not, the retreats often give them the opportunity to be more candid on things they would not want to discuss in public, conspire to sell their agenda to the public, or even go so far as to attack one another in ways they would not allow the public to see.
That is disingenuous if not just plain dishonest.
The only thing they really seem to be retreating from is the public eye.
We have little doubt that those elected to office will adamantly defend their standing practice of annual retreats.
That defense will most likely center around the argument that state law allows it.
That begs the question — should you do everything or anything you can do or want to do, just because it is not illegal?
Those holding office need to ask themselves why they ran for office, why they chose public service and why they do the things they do they way they do them?
A true public servant seeks public office to serve the public.
The public is best served by openness, accessibility, transparency and amenability.
Local government keeps moving farther and farther away from the people.
The entire mindset of our elected officials needs to change.
The more open you are, the more accessible you are, the more public trust you will build.
The more you hide behind closed doors, go off on retreats or even whisper to one another during meetings — even if you are not up to no good — the more people will be suspicious and the more they will be inclined to distrust you.
We have elected officials who like to pontificate populace messages about serving the people, but they continue to hide the public’s business by convening in excessive executive sessions, by vote-getting among their fellow board, council or commission members prior to meetings and by going off on these out-of-town retreats on the public dime.
The practice does not match the rhetoric.
The recourse of citizens is to show up at meetings and demand more openness, call those elected to represent them and express their frustrations, and when the time comes to exercise their voting privileges seek out candidates who not only pledge openness and accessibility, but who are more likely to practice what they preach once they get in office.
— Editor Jim Zachary