There’s a reason why the metaphor for open government is sunshine.
People whose lives are affected by actions in their community have a right to be enlightened, not kept in the dark.
Yet officials in Amsterdam seem to have missed the whole point of openness and transparency. That was demonstrated by Amsterdam Mayor Michael Cinquanti, who held a closed-door meeting at City Hall last week among an handful of stakeholders who had questions about a plan by the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless (IPH) to open an 18-bed homeless shelter on Guy Park Avenue.
The mayor said he hoped to create an open dialogue at the meeting among IPH, county and city departments, and organizations located near the shelter. Instead, what he did by holding the meeting behind closed doors was make other interested parties in the community who also have questions and concerns about the project feel excluded and uninformed.
The mayor and the city’s corporation counsel fumbled together some unconvincing excuses for holding the meeting in secret.
For instance, the corporation counsel said the meeting didn’t violate the Open Meetings Law. But the reason for the state’s transparency laws isn’t to give the government justification to shut the people out; it’s to ensure they’re let in.
Officials also said the annex where the meeting was held was too small for a larger crowd. Well, if you suspect a lot of people might be interested in a topic, as the mayor clearly figured, then hold the meeting in a bigger venue.
To placate those who felt shut out, the mayor said he would release a summary of the meeting. But a summary is hardly an adequate substitution for allowing people to actually observe and listen to what’s said at the forum.
The mayor also said that he would not hold any more public meetings on the shelter because IPH had already explained the project in detail at a public meeting in June, and he didn’t feel they should be made to explain it all once again.
But if everyone in the community already had all the information they needed, why the need for the closed-door meeting last week?
At the very least, the mayor could have arranged to have the meeting broadcast online and posted a video of it afterward. Then the public could have witnessed what questions were asked and answered and followed up with their own questions. A tape of the meeting also would be far more informative than a summary.
This is a wrong that can still be made right.
Even if it inconveniences the developer of the shelter, the mayor needs to hold one more public information session (in a large space). Let IPH come and explain it one more time. Take questions in writing and read them at the meeting to keep it short and avoid repetitiveness. Post a video of the meeting after for those who miss it.
Clearly, some people in the community still have questions and concerns.
It’s unfair to share information with some of them while keeping others in the dark.