Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that would dangerously erode the state’s Open Meetings Act, allowing members of a public board to review the preliminary findings of an audit regarding their agency in secret with legal counsel to counter what are perceived to be errors. The result could be secret deals to resolve inconvenient matters privately, without public knowledge or input, before the final draft of an audit becomes public.
Unfortunately, HB74 passed the House on Thursday, 55-16. For the good of responsible and accountable government in Utah, it should go no further.
Despite the lopsided vote, a number of lawmakers rose in impassioned opposition to the bill. One of these was Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, who argued that the state’s default position always has been to do the public’s business in the open and to “expose every wart and uncomfortable thing we do before the people.”
The bill, he said, would allow “an opportunity for a public body to huddle up before something uncomfortable comes out” and to craft a public relations response to manage bad publicity. “I am not in favor of making us a less Open Meeting Act state,” he said.
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, said she had declined to sponsor similar legislation in the past because it would be “outside the scope” of state policy as written in the Open Meetings Act. Staff members and elected officials already may discuss drafts of audits in private, just not in numbers that would constitute a quorum.
These and other clear-minded lawmakers understand that openness is essential for accountability and good governance, no matter how inconvenient it may seem. The people have a keen interest in knowing what those they elect as representatives are doing in office.
HB74 originated with the State School Board, a 15-member body whose members expressed frustrations over a recent audit. Their desire was to meet in private to speak candidly about its perceived accuracy before it became public.
Think about that. Why should they not speak candidly about perceived errors in front of you, the public that elected them? What would they like to say in private that you can't hear? If an error can be exposed by facts, why worry about perceptions?
The truth is, state law already allows many avenues for boards and their attorneys to discuss such reports. Not only can they speak in numbers smaller than a quorum, audits could be emailed to board members for their input. However, if they meet together to discuss it, or anything else that falls outside the law’s few, narrow exceptions, they must do so in the light of day. That seems like a small concession to public involvement.11 comments on this story
That basic premise — that meetings should be open to the public except for narrowly defined exceptions — has served Utah taxpayers well through the years and needs to continue. Neither the State School Board nor any other public body can point to a governance problem here that needs to be fixed.
If some elected leaders had their way, the state’s Open Meetings Act would die by a thousands small exceptions. This year it may be audits. Perhaps next year some group will lobby for an exception to preliminary budget reports. Governments tend to naturally gravitate toward ways to preserve power and protect against bad publicity.
The public needs to draw a line in the sand. Defeating HB74 would be a good first step.