We had a town hall meeting yesterday and four or five people were able to make it. I was grateful. We had a lot to discuss (you can find the notes from the meeting here) and it would have been nice to have had more people there – but I know the fall is a busy time and the announcement may have slipped by some people.
Never fear. We’ll have another. On October 20th at 2pm. At City Hall. You’re welcome to come.
One of the issues we talked about, albeit so briefly it didn’t even make the summary of the notes I posted, related to meetings on subjects that matter to the City and concerns people have about both attending and participating. One person at the meeting said he only knew two things about Riverdale before he moved to our community: that there were problems with the bike path and that we sued each other over open records and open meetings.
That’s not the kind of legacy I think any of us want.
Saving the bike path discussion for another day (we’re actually working a plan to resolve that issue, believe it or not), I would like to address the “elephant in the room” that’s so big, it actually seems to be blocking the door and keeping people out: Riverdale’s history of litigation.
I’m not going to delve into the history of what happened, what decisions were made, what it cost our community and who was right or wrong. That’s in the past. But what does need to be discussed is how our city and its leadership makes sure our dealings are transparent and in compliance with state law concerning both open meetings and open records. This blog post is an attempt to start that conversation constructively – so please don’t consider this to be the “last word” on this matter, merely my opinion.
About Open Meetings and Open Records
Open meeting laws (also called sunshine laws) require most federal, state and local governmental meetings be open to the public – along with their decisions and records. This is so the public is able to access the internal workings of government at all levels and is tied directly to the First Amendment of the US Constitution and our rights to free speech. (Here’s a link to an interesting article on the subject.)
In short, these laws are based on the principal that “the people” have a right to see “the people’s business” being done. And while any sausage-maker will tell you that the process isn’t necessarily a pretty one, it’s worth the effort.
I think the fear about the “spectacle of sausage-making” is often what drives political leaders to want to conduct their business out of sight. Disagreements, even principled ones, can be an ugly affair and a poorly-phrased expression can lead to hurt feelings, anger and embarrassment. I believe it’s the desire of most political leaders to appear competent and collegial – that’s not always accomplished during the deliberation of a confusing or particularly thorny issue.
Add an audience to that and the tension, anxiety and frustration levels all rise exponentially.
But open meetings and open records ARE the law. So we, as elected officials, have to get over ourselves. We have to be ready to express our thoughts, opinions and concerns fulsomely (in total) without concern for ridicule or disagreement. And we have to be willing to suffer the consequences of taking unpopular positions when we stand for re-election.
That’s not an easy thing to ask of a part-time mayor or city council member. But it is the job.
Haven’t you ever wondered why I try to keep our meetings light and loose? Maybe too loose for some, but it’s my desire to encourage our council members AND the residents present at official meetings to take the time they need to fully express themselves. Only on very rare occasions have I felt I had to cut someone off from rambling on incoherently or being disrespectful. I’ll do it, I just don’t want to make stifling discussion or debate the standard for how our public meetings should operate.
As a result, our meetings tend to run a little long. My apologies for that.
But, back to open meetings. If you check out this handy guide on the law, you’ll note that these rules apply to certain kinds of meetings: “a gathering in person or by electronic means, formal or informal, of a majority of the members of a governmental body where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties.” (Section 21.2)
What that means is that the open meetings and open records rules apply to meetings of the City Council of Riverdale where they deliberate or take action on any city-related policy. Those meetings could be regular or special council meetings, Planning & Zoning Commission meetings, Zoning Board of Adjustment meetings/hearings and public hearings of special actions taken by the Council (like approving a conduit bond or our annual budget).
What’s not included on the list are meetings where citizens are invited to participate in the discussion of their concerns and issues facing the community. Meetings like our town hall meetings, invasive plant task force meetings, parks planning meetings, city budget-setting meetings, etc. These are, technically, “citizen advisory” meetings and don’t HAVE to follow the open meetings/open records meetings.
But that’s not to say they won’t.
In fact, while we don’t HAVE to post notices, take notes or file minutes of those meetings, it’s a good idea that we do. “Transparency” is a best practice when it comes to government. We need to be in the habit of discussing serious issues openly and freely with our fellow citizens. And we also need to develop an ability to politely disagree and construct solutions that build bridges and solve problems.
Having to file lawsuits to get answers to legitimate questions shouldn’t be the solution.
What This Means For You
Riverdale is a small city with very limited resources. We’ve been blessed with a history of residents who have been willing to step up and pitch in when the City needs them. And as we face the coming years and the economic challenges ahead, we’ll need our residents to feel comfortable volunteering their time, talent, ideas and energy to the projects we think will benefit our little community the most.
But that won’t happen if people are afraid of getting sued because they didn’t post a meeting notice or take notes during a citizens advisory session. Hopefully, that won’t continue to be a concern going forward.
Riverdale needs you. We hope you’ll answer the call.