February Editorial Winner

Let’s Take the Smoke Out

WAYNE TROTTER, The Countywide & Sun

Before jumping into the mind-swamp of technology and its effect on open government, let's get one thing straight: We want Mayor Wes Mainord and the six other members of the Shawnee City Commission to communicate with one another. We want them to plan and think together. We want them to have new ideas. We want them to succeed.
But when it comes to city business, we also want to know what they're doing ... and not just because we long for another headline. Those are everywhere if you look for them. We want to know because what they're doing affects so many people . .. people who work for the City of Shawnee ... people who live in the City of Shawnee ... people who live close to Shawnee and work or shop there ... Maybe us ... Maybe you ... Maybe everybody.
The problem that bothers us is not integrity or dishonesty or anything vaguely approaching intentional deception. The problem is technology. It's moving faster than the law and common practice. It's a particular problem for government because in America, government isn't limited to a privileged few. It's all of us and it affects all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said, this is of the people, by the people, for the people. We think the people need to have a reasonable opportunity to know what's going on. And yes, we have a vested interest in making sure that happens.
Right now, technology is getting in the way of that goal. But technology, we believe, can also solve it ... easily and to everyone's advantage.
Flash back, oh, about 20 years with us. If you walked into Shawnee City Hall after 6:30 in the evening on the first or third Monday of almost any month, you'd find the entire city commission chowing down on what we understand was delicious food. They did that in a conference room right off the city manager's office. In effect, it was a closed session of Shawnee's governing body hosted by the manager himself. These public officials came, they ate, and they must have talked to one another. About what? City business and the upcoming meeting? You think? No, they said. No, the manager said. But were there suspicions? You bet.
That dinner meeting wasn't nearly as serious but under Oklahoma's Open Meetings Act, it was just as illegal as bank robbery. It carne to an end not because some news outlet complained - although we assure you we did. It ceased because Oklahoma's attorney general was asked about it at an open forum on open government. He almost turned blue before he said something like "no way." After that, proponents and opponents of any given idea were more likely to voice their opinions in the biweekly open commission meeting. Oops. No. Oops and hooray!
What's happening right now in Shawnee and all across the realm of government is the 2013 equivalent of the old smoke-filled room. Nobody intends to do anything wrong, but they are unintentionally yet successfully doing just that. Everyone would be better if they opened things up.
This dispute over how to handle the city's employee health insurance makes that point perfectly.
Health insurance has been a problem in Shawnee government for as long as most people can remember. Eight years ago, a weary commission passed the whole thing off to management and a 16-member employee review committee was formed. Now a majority of the members of another commission thinks they ought to have a larger role in spending more than a million bucks in city money every year. They're right about that, but the 16-employee committee approach had two big advantages: It calmed the choppy waters and it worked.
The upshot? Reasonable citizens and minority voices on the commission are asking why the city can't have both. We wonder why as well but we're also wondering whether this issue would have been headed off at the pass if the whole thing had been broached in the open. Instead, the change was discussed though e-mails between and among interested commissioners. Until the Fire Fighters Union filed an open records request, those e-mails were held close to the vest.
And it doesn't matter that less than a majority were involved in sending and receiving those e-mails. All one commissioner has to do is hit the forward button and four have the entire record. Then five. Then six. Then seven. Why not the public? Why not indeed?
Almost three years ago, we filed an open records request in effect asking to see all the e-mails among and between commissioners in a timely manner. The Shawnee News-Star did the same thing. We're both still waiting for a formal reply. Sending those e-mails contemporaneously to those who ask is one answer and is cheaper and less time-consuming than conducting a keyword search after the fact. Putting those e-mails on a corner of the city's website is another possibility. Could the city do one or the other? Surely the answer is "yes." Why isn't that being done? To us, the obvious answer is that somebody in City Hall likes things the way they are. Is that right, Mr. Mayor? Is that right, Mr. City Manager? Is that right, commissioners?
It doesn't matter whether it's done in a smoke-filled room or on the internet. When a discussion is held in private rather than in the open, it's hard to understand why decisions are being made. Members of the commission already know the talking points so they speed up the process. Interested onlookers including reporters and editors are left scratching their heads. News coverage suffers. As a result, the public isn't as fully informed as it ought to be. In some cases- most we believe - good government suffers as well.
This can be solved. It's time to do that.

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