“We the people.”
Those three words, the first three words of the U.S. Constitution, are often cited as justification for citizens exercising their constitutional rights.
But those three words apply in a broader sense to the definition of government itself.
“We the people.” It’s our government. We own it. We pay for it. We agree to be bound by its laws and regulations.
The whole of American society is based on citizen ownership of government.
Now imagine you can pay your money in taxes and you vote, but then the people you put in office withhold vital information from you.
That’s what happens in significant way when government bodies go into closed-door executive sessions without providing a legal reason for their secrecy.
Last week, the New York Coalition For Open Government released a study in which it reviewed the practices of 20 school boards over the first six months of last year and their reasons for meeting in secret.
Among the report’s conclusions were that school districts were generally failing in providing adequate justification for meeting in secret, therefore raising questions about what they were hiding from us.
Out of 165 motions to go into executive session that were reviewed, boards failed to provide adequate justification 100 times.
Using the coalition’s grading system, 70% of the districts surveyed had failing grades, and 30% got absolutely none of their executive session motions correct.
The Open Meetings Law allows executive sessions for only eight specific reasons, including matters that would imperil public safety, collective bargaining, acquiring real property, legal strategy and matters related to specific individuals or corporations in areas such as hiring, firing and discipline.
(For a full list of exemptions, click here and scroll down to Section 105, Conduct of executive sessions.)
Boards are required to be as specific as possible in defining their reason for going into executive session, such as what litigation they’re discussing or what specific positions they’re discussing.
When they’re not specific, when they give no reason at all or when they try to lump such discussions under the word “personnel” (a word that doesn’t exist in the Open Meetings Law), they’re deceiving we the people and possibly keeping secrets.
This report shows that if we want full and accurate information about our government’s activities, we have to be aware of the laws that protect us and also be willing to stand up and challenge vague or non-existent justifications for secrecy.
If we let government get away with this kind of behavior, then the government no longer belongs to us; it belongs to the government. Know your rights and exercise them.
If you don’t, the government will gladly deprive you of your rights and do whatever it can to get away with it.