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Why governmet transparency matters

Why does local government transparency matter?

Simply speaking, open government is good government, or at least it is better government.

As we champion open and transparent government in our county, we are not “against” elected officials.

Rather, we are “for” citizens.

Even when elected officials believe they are doing what is in the best interest of citizens, even when their motives are pure and their objectives are sound, even when they are not doing anything wrong, they still must be fully accountable to citizens.

Government transparency is an important issue that matters and we will continue to try and explain it in ways that hopefully will eventually resonate with all our elected officials.

We are on your side.

We want you to get it right.

In the end, every thing you do, and every thing we do, should be all about what is in the best interests of the citizens.

Public service is not private business.

In private enterprise, a chief executive officer or a board of directors must answer to their stockholders.

In public service, elected officials must answer to their stakeholders — citizens.

Sometimes this can be difficult.

However, just because something is difficult does not mean it is not necessary.

Elected officials have a tendency to complain about the media when a lack of accountability or public visibility is highlighted in news coverage or editorials.

They like to say we don’t understand the law.

They like to say they are only doing what they have to do.

They like to say that if we really understood what they were doing behind closed doors that we would not be saying they need to be more transparent.

They are wrong.

They may mean well.

But, they are wrong.

Yes, doing the public’s business in public may have a downside.

It may compromise some initiative.

It may expose something they don’t want to come to light.

We get that.

It still does not make it right.

Public service comes at a price.

Being a public employee comes at a price.

A part of that price is public exposure.

If an elected official or a public employee does not like that, want that or hopes to avoid that, then the private sector is their best option.

We encourage elected officials to look at the issue of government transparency as a citizen and not as an elected official.

Every decision you are making, even decisions about public employees, land deals and lawsuits are decisions that you are only empowered to make by virtue of the fact you have been elected to serve the public.

You are doing the public’s business and the general public has a right to know about its own business.

The most common mistake that elected officials make is that they allow themselves to be told by attorneys that they must do certain pieces of business behind closed doors.

Despite what you have been told, that is not true.

Georgia’s leading authority on the state’s Open Meetings Act has said repeatedly there is no law that requires officials to go into executive session.

Rather, he has explained, the law allows them to convene in executive session, under very specific circumstances.

The law allows it.

It doesn’t require it.

There is a huge difference.

Any elected officials who say they are legally required to conceal public business are simply misinformed.

Perhaps for years, no one has called concealing public documents or over using the executive session privilege into question, so local officials are simply doing business as usual.

That does not make it right.

Because something has always been done or because a lawyer advises you can legally do it, does not mean in any way that it is what you should be doing or have to do.

There are some city and county governments in Georgia that almost never go into executive session.

There are some states in the U.S. that limit executive sessions to the extent that officials can only go behind closed doors in the midst of an actual, real, lawsuit for the sole purpose of discussing legal strategy, resulting in a situation where closed doors meetings are very rare.

Call it closed door, call it back room deal making or call it executive session, out of the public eye is out of the public eye and even if what you are doing is acceptable with citizens, when you do it in the dark it breeds suspicion and begs for questioning.

Instead of justifying a long-standing practice, just consider the fact that other cities and counties in Georgia and all jurisdictions in some states do almost every piece of public business in public.

It can be done.

It is being done.

Why can’t we do it here?

We understand it is often not the easy thing to do.

It is, however, always the right thing to do.

— Editor Jim Zachary