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.
You can reach us at: firstname.lastname@example.org