Saturday, March 6, 2010

Transparency in Government

How do you define "transparency" in government?  That's certainly the buzzword these days . . . but what is it, exactly?

In very basic terms, no government entity should be doing things "behind closed doors" or in private/secret meetings that affect their constituents and those constituents' tax dollars.  There are laws that spell this out - in Ohio, we refer to them as "Sunshine Laws", and there are clear guidelines as to how a public entity is to conduct public business:  In Public!! 

Of course, a few things fall within the scope of what is called "executive session", where public discourse would be detrimental to the process, but these items are few and very specifically defined in the Ohio Revised Code. 

That is why we must publically post all dates and times of our board meetings - so that the public may be informed and thereby have opportunity to attend.  These same rules apply to the Village, Townships, etc.  Accommodation must be made for members of the public to physically attend these meetings, so sufficient space and chairs etc. must also be provided. 

It is not required that members of the public be given a chance to speak during these meetings, but I can't think of any government entity around here that doesn't.  At our board meetings, we allow time at the beginning for residents of the school district to address the board.  Other entities are a bit looser with their procedures, and that's okay, too, as long as good manners prevail and control is maintained so that the meeting may progress.

While these are the measures required by law, the school board has instituted a newsletter - the Bulldog Bulletin - to keep residents abreast of school district happenings between meeting dates.  The newsletter is mailed to every resident in the district, regardless of whether a particular resident has children in the system or not.  We all have a vested interest in the school district and deserve to be kept apprised of how our tax dollars are being spent to educate the next generation.

I have suggested that digital recordings of our board meetings be made available to the public as well, for those who are unable to physically attend.  We will be looking at that option soon, and if you are at our next regular meeting you'll hear us talk about it.

In addition to these pro-active avenues, a resident also has the option of making a public record request on specific items from any government entity.  This, too, is spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code, which includes parameters for the request as well as guidelines on the process for its completion.

All of these measures exist to protect citizens, and allow an avenue for them to keep informed of the actions of their elected representatives, as well as the reasons behind the decision to take those actions.

The school board is very careful to operate within the letter and spirit of the law - we do not see how we may "legally twist" things to suit any private agenda.

Obviously, public meetings are only helpful to those who are able to attend.  Newsletters are great - but only if you read them.  Digital recordings of meetings would be swell, but if you never take the time to listen you'll be no further ahead than before.

Your school board is doing everything in our power to make our deliberations and actions accessible to the public:  those who voted us into office.  But no matter how many options we use to "get the word out", those options are only good if they are used.

I hope You are coming to school board meetings, and reading the Bulldog Bulletin - and once we podcast our meetings, I hope You will take time to listen in on what your elected officials are doing with your school district tax dollars.