Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Executive Sessions: Necessary Secrets Or Inconvenient Law?

Sometimes, to hear people talk, you'd think executive sessions weren't legal.
But, of course, they are.
And, they are essential to protect people, public funds and legal rights.
That is why they are allowed under law.

Why do you imagine these more secretive sessions are called 'executive sessions'?
Think that has anything to do with the executive branch of government?
Is this system subject to abuse?
You bet it is, just like a lot of things.
But how does one begin to show this suspicion, especially if they don't have access to all the facts?
The answer is they don't have many options, except to watch closely, ask questions and -well- just be suspicious.

As far as questions go, there is no such thing as an 'inappropriate' question.
But, there certainly can be 'inappropriate' answers!
That is why the executive session provision is considered so necessary and legal.

Other, more knowledgeable folks can probably give a better litany of reasons why the executive session provision exists here in the State of Washington, where it was first adopted in 1972.
Since that time the list of 10 legal reasons for justifying executive sessions has morphed into some 300.
One wonders if all of those are really different reasons or just more specific definitions and examples - but politically this expanded list seems to make for great political fodder for some folks.
You know, folks like State AG and politician Rob McKenna, the usual anti-guvmint folks and maybe even a few direct democracy types and anarchists, plus don't forget those desperately trying to fill up space on slow news days without working at it too hard.

But, you know what? All of this is fair game!
After all, we are supposed to be a 'representative' democracy.
That means those fortunate - or unfortunate - enough to be elected to serve get to live in public fishbowls, where their every act is carefully scrutinized, questioned and second-guessed, sometimes seemingly without even a modicum of trust, respect or an attempt at understanding.
You know, knee-jerk stuff that's accepted just because it includes a few 'magic' words that can galvanize people, or simply be instantly interpreted as legitimate, like 'transparency', 'openness', 'public's right to know', etc.
Don't get me wrong, all this inquisitiveness does come with the territory; but that's not to say that some of it isn't spurious, deliberately deceptive, and even wasteful of public resources at times.

And, it is human nature to want to know about what's going on, especially when one is excluded from possibly juicy details!
Why there might be a tasty headline, scoop or just the start of a misguided dialogue hidden among topics covered by executive sessions.
Can't afford to let that happen, can we?
Yet, excessive emphasis on suspicions, speculation and political banter for its own sake have to be partly to blame for the public's loss of interest in traditional media, like newspapers.
Just look at which journalists and publications were recently honored with Pulitzer prizes.
They weren't the tabloids, media with obvious biases or agendas, or reporters and editorialists who do not thoroughly research their work.
That should be instructive, at every level of reporting!
And, this is a simple observation, not a criticism; there is a difference.

Back to local executive sessions for a moment.
Here are just a few examples that relate to typical topics:
It may be useful to keep in mind that the City of Bellingham is a municipal corporation, with elected officials that act as CEO [Mayor] and Board of Directors [Council].

• litigation and potential litigation- the City's Legal budget typically provides annually for millions of dollars in legal liability
• protection of attorney - client privilege; including executive department operations -which do not require separate Council approval
• there are literally millions of dollars in potential liabilities at stake and under active litigation, including those that are simply spurious and without merit and likely to be dismissed with minimal expense to the City -AND its taxpayers.
• there are labor contracts that have resulted from months of collective bargaining negotiations which require Council approval [always made in public] before going into effect.
• there are personnel matters which are sensitive and inappropriate to broadcast widely
• there are purchasing and acquisition opportunities which depend upon a certain amount of confidentiality prior to finalization to insure lowest public cost
* there is an entire list of potential reasons for inclusion of an item into an executive session, and these are readily available for review on public websites, including ACCESS WASHINGTON, MRSC and others.

As with most things, it is likely impossible to reduce each one of them to a pre-defined and certain formula.
Instead, a certain of informed judgement may be required, and this is supplied by the City's legal staff, who represent not only the executive branch, but also the legislative - whose approval is ultimately required in deciding any executive session matter.
Now, I know that just saying 'trust me' isn't something that holds water for many people, but it is essential at times -executive sessions being one such example.

The temptation to know what is going on is not only essential, but very healthy, but it can also overly tempting at times.
But, hey, if a juicy piece can be mined by nosing around executive sessions, why not do it?
After all, any proof to the contrary of an idle suspicion can amount to partial disclosure of the actual facts!
How convenient.

It is always good to question things, especially those things that impact our government and the public interest.
But, have you ever wondered why some folks would rather nose around for juicy, 'secret' gossip than actually cover other events that aren't executive sessions?
Human nature is only part of the answer I suspect.
And it can sell newspapers, plus create instant controversy and a fleeting 'Andy Warhol 15-minutes of fame'.

The really hard -but useful- work would be to research why executive sessions were deemed so important that they are now specifically provided for under our State law, which can always be modified if proven necessary.
If some people think executive sessions are unnecessary or unduly secretive, then it is their real job is to convince the State legislature to make changes to this law.
Of course, just stirring up discontent among the populace might also be deemed helpful to such an effort, as well, as some populist politicians seem always willing to do.

But, failing the finding that executive sessions are inherently fatally flawed, the next best bet is to exert a little more confidence in the system we have, imperfect as it may be.
That also includes making sure that those elected to office are trustworthy and competent, which is no one's responsibility more than citizens themselves!
And, it would be nice to have the same standard of trustworthiness applied to everyone who seriously follows the workings of our local government.
Doesn't it seem fair to have this same standard apply to everyone, whether legally mandated or voluntarily embraced?
If we are to have a system of government that is consistently fact-based, respectful of the law, and responsive to the public, we deserve nothing less.

Executive sessions do have their place and serve a practical purpose.
But, like everything else, improvement is always possible.
Perhaps, the idea of mandatory instruction for elected officials is a good idea that ought be pursued.
If that does come to pass, I hope these training sessions would be held in very public forums and televised for future reference, so that all citizens can exposed to this basic information, and therefore more aware of the useful functions executive sessions do play in government decisions.

In the meantime, there are plenty of subjects to be researched, reported and debated in public, that are NOT executive sessions!
You know, little things like protecting the Lake Whatcom Reservoir, Growth Management, Waterfront Redevelopment, Budget gaps, a new Library, background information on elected officials and candidates for office, etc, etc, might also seem to have some very juicy 'secrets' hiding in plain sight.
They might as well be secrets, if people don't know about them.
And, they aren't being kept 'secret' by any excuse like executive sessions; they some of the many are 'open' secrets that folks just aren't being informed about; maybe because that would be considered too much work, or maybe just boring?
Just a few things like these could stand more research and reporting, what do you think?

Even beginning a discussion about a topic like executive sessions, can be daunting but necessary, and it is good this is being done again, as it has in the past.
When any subject is subject to misunderstanding and/or misinterpretation, that -alone- is a good time to examine it more thoroughly.
The question Then becomes, how best to do this.
Ideally, the method used will engage citizens with factual information, then pose suggestions for actually improving the process, not just questioning in its entirety.

And, surely, some respect must be shown for the decades of thought already put into such matters by the citizens, media and elected officials of the State of Washington!
Those folks may not have been perfect, but who says we are either?

Let's be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water, shall we?