There was some recent conversation specifically about where the open meeting law and public transparency intersects with city committees. This was a good opportunity for me to learn a little more about these two perspectives. I read up on some analysis that council members did a few years ago and I spoke to a few others to gather more about our current ad hoc committee structure and purposes.
In short the Open Meeting Law states that as long as the committee is less than a quorum and doesn’t have any decision making power it’s not violating the OML. But is that enough?
Ad hoc committees allow council members, city staff, and other entities to have discussions for a specific purpose. Council members try to represent the residents’ interests in these conversations by having a sense of the council and the residents they represent. These committees can vette ideas, solutions, and direction quickly. These committees allow everyone to speak openly and not watch as closely about all of their phrasing and that a particular statement may be taken out of context. A summary or report can be given to the council and staff updates on items, when a committee gives a recommendation to the whole council the necessary context is provided and council members can always as follow up questions and these conversations happen in a public forum. So it’s my opinion that ad hoc committees can strike the balance between a level of transparency--that information necessary for decisions are made in the public forum but council members can get through the minutia of details more quickly in ad hoc committees.
I can understand community members with a particular and specific interest in a committee wanting a more public venue for these committees. I strongly encourage them to reach out to the council members on those committees and share their knowledge. I strongly believe that the more information I can gather the more educated decision we can make. I don’t know what I don’t know.
I think in an ideal world agendas and minutes or a summary would sometimes by appropriate and I can understand the desire for them as a communication tool. However, I understand the limits in time we all have. Simply put sometimes there are only so many hours in a day. We could hire another individual that could help with this task but that’s another city expense. We could continue to research this further and I’m always open to consider that, which I did. I gave the idea a lot of thought and consideration and did a lot of research leading up to the meeting and walked into it open to learning more. But nothing convinced me that the opinion of the council in 2010 needed to be reconsidered and this was affirmed by the city’s attorney. So it wasn’t worth the city staff time or funds. I just couldn’t justify this expense at this time.
The most reasonable way to balance completing the work of the city in a timely and efficient yet open manner is is if the committees communicate clearly to the whole council in the public forum, especially when decisions are to be made, and community members who have an interest and/or expertise in an area connect with council members.
If new information comes along I’m happy to reconsider this opinion, but at this moment I think we have the best balance we can at this time.