December 10, 2009

Open meetings matter, and here's why

I heard a funny line from city government today.

The Public Works committee added an item to an agenda this week less than 24 hours - actually it was about 6 hours - before its meeting, which is clearly a violation of open meetings laws.

State law allows governments to skip the 24-hour requirement with "good cause." In this case, the committee discussed, and approved, spending about $29,000 on a public education campaign to promote use of the new recycling bins every city resident will get next year.

Some questions were raised about the need to rush the item onto the agenda without proper notice. The response (emphasis added): "Prior to the advent of the Racine Post, it was fairly common for items to be added to committee agendas within the 24 hour time frame because so many of the items would be finalized after Fridays. We just notice it more now."

So, basically, prior to this little blog's existence, city officials were OK with violating laws designed to inform the public about what they were doing and how they were doing it. Now, they think twice about it. They still do it, but at least they think about it.

I'll take some blame for this culture. Back in my JT days, guys like Pete Karas would bring these types of violations to our attention. And we'd blow 'em off. What's it matter? A committee like Public Works is all about getting business done, and something like a public education campaign for recycling bins makes sense.

It does matter. Government works best in the sunshine, out in the open. When everyone plays by the same set of rules in every circumstance, there's less opportunity to tweak the system for illicit gain. In this case, it's totally innocent. But others are not so innocent.

Earlier this year Alderman Jeff Coe raised questions about how City Administrator Tom Friedel's contract was handled in a closed session meeting that was not properly noticed. Before anyone knew what happened, Friedel was locked in for six years at $95,000, which Coe said was $10,000 more than he expected. The council's response? Silence. (Ironically, Coe got reprimanded for a meetings violation.)

On a personal level, RacinePost relies heavily on city agendas and minutes to cover local government. We trust city officials to accurately portray, as is required by law, what will and was discussed at their meetings. When these records are inaccurately portrayed, we're left in the dark (along with anyone else interested in their local government).

So, yes, we'll continue to be dogged on seemingly minor open meetings and records violations. We strongly encourage anyone in the community who has questions or concerns about open government to get in touch. In keeping with our time-honored role as government watchdogs, we'll investigate every complaint we receive.

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  1. The City,DRC,RCEDC, Th Good old boys rather not have us know what is going on. I may not like your left wing leanings, but I am glad your there.
    Still think a community fund raiser would work to get the $$ needed for Becker's email, and every member of The City Government better kick in or the question "what does X have to hide....

  2. I am so thankful you guys and this site exist!! Even with committee meetings held at the most inconvenient times for the average citizen, the word still gets out to us thanks to a handful of citizens and your website. Proper(legal) postings of the meetings are/were routinely abused in the effort to "ram er' home quickly. Amazing how the bean counters now watch their step. And why is that important? You don't get it if you have to ask!

  3. Thanks guys!

    If you get comfortable breaking one rule then maybe you break others....especially if you think nobody is watching. It might seem like a pain but those rules are probably there for some good reasons. If they don't like it then change the rules.

  4. Prior to the advent of the Racine Post, they got away with a lot of crapola. You should be very proud. Thank you.

    And thanks to Jeff Coe, the only alderman I ever hear questioning the Becker agenda.

  5. I thought things would have changed, but it seems Dickert is just like all the rest.

  6. I agree that you have forced the local folks to follow the laws in place. Too bad the old line media isn't forcing Madison and Washington to do their business in the open. The amount of behind closed doors bad government in Washington and Madison is getting worse not better. I hope both dems and GOP are upset about what is going on in the State and Federal legislative processes. Niether party can be proud lately.

  7. Hopefully the Post can shine a little more light on Mt Pleasant. The latest game is that they are trying to make the elected Clerk/Treasurer position a full-time employee appointed by the Board. The current clerk is way to political and not qualified for an appointed position. The well founded fear of many in Mt Pleasant is that the current cleark will be appointed by the Board without looking for more qualified candidates like they did for the Village Administrator and Assessor. Even the Journal Sentinel picked up that the current MP Admin was appointed with no administrative or management experience. He was appointed shortly after resigning as the Village Chair with no other candidates considered.

    There have been so many complaints about the current clerk/treasurer that appointing her would not be in the best interest of the Village.

    Furthermore, I'm not sure she could be legally appointed anyway because I don't think that an currently serving elected official can be actively involved in the creation of an appointed position and then be selected to serve in that position. I think her current involvement would exempt her from being selected.

    I hope that there is pressure put on the Board to set educational, qualifications, and other work experience in a job description that is included with final documents the Board passes that anyone who got the job(s) would be required to meet before being hired.

    I hope that the Post watches Mt Pleasant and this specific issue carefully.

  8. The current Mt Pleasant Clerk has been in the job for years. She has the knowledge and experience necessary to do the job. I do not see a problem if she is appointed to the new position. My experience with her has always been positive and very professional.