Friday, February 04, 2000

Democracy flowers best in sunlight

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County's commissioners made a good decision this week. But they went about it the wrong way.

        Their meeting behind closed doors could be illegal. At the very least, it discourages participation in the democratic process. The last thing elected officials should do is cut citizens out of the loop. Do that and democracy dies.

        It was on Monday afternoon that the commissioners announced at a press conference their “intentions” — Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus's word — to contribute $2 million toward putting a deck on Fort Washington Way. The money goes to a $10 million project to drive the pilings for a deck to support a park over the highway.

        The commissioners reached this decision earlier in the day after they closed their doors to the public and went into executive session. “Executive session” is a term lawyers and bureaucrats use to describe a meeting where the public and the press are barred while business is conducted. By law, such meetings are allowed when officials are discussing personnel matters, buying property, court actions, collective bargaining, matters kept confidential by federal, state or local statutes and security arrangements.

        On Wednesday, the commissioners voted in public to make official what they had already announced Monday. The vote was two (Bob Bedinghaus and Tom Neyer) to one (John Dowlin).

        I have no problem with the commissioners' decision. The county should contribute to putting a deck atop Fort Washington Way. Everyone in the community has a stake in seeing this riverfront development succeed. Everybody in Cincinnati and Hamilton County benefits when city and county officials work together. And, it's great that both entities are seeing eye to eye.

        But I am troubled by how the commissioners made their decision.

        The way I read Ohio's Open Meetings Act, commissioners can't decide an issue like this in private and then vote on it later in public.

        Public issues must be discussed in public first and be open to public debate. The idea behind open meetings law is to keep public business out of smoke-filled rooms, in the open. Call it “intentions” or anything else, I think what our three commissioners did is illegal. Not to mention tacky.

        This is a democracy. The people run it. Commissioners are elected. Not born to the job like arrogant kings with divine rights.

        Whether the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act can only be determined in a court of law. Tax opponent Tim Mara is considering filing suit over the commissioners' decision-making process.

People power
        Thursday morning, Bob Bedinghaus tried to assure me everything was on the up-and-up when the commissioners went into executive session.

        “Nothing's happening in secret,” he said.

        I want to believe him. But, not having X-ray vision, I can't be sure.

        The intent of the Open Meetings Act is to keep democracy working. Meetings held in the open allow citizens to see and comment on government in action. They learn what motivates an official to vote in a certain way. This reduces the perception and the reality that government makes its decisions behind closed doors. The more people understand the process, the more likely they are to join in.

        State Senator Scott Oelslager, from Canton, has sponsored amendments to the Open Meetings Act since 1985. To him, open public meetings “make government more accessible.

        “People feel they are part of the process if they can have their voice heard,” he added. “They may not get what they want. But if they can speak out at meetings, then they are more likely to feel the system is open to everyone.

        “Get people to believe that one vote, one voice, is important, then they believe and take part in democracy.”

        Democracy needs all the believers it can get. Voter turnout continues to drop like a rock. In Hamilton County last November, only 32 percent of the eligible voters bothered to go to the polls.

        With those numbers, voters don't need any more excuses for not casting ballots on Election Day. Rather they need reasons — including the behavior of local officials — to believe that democracy in Hamilton County is government of, by and for the people.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.