Call for Open Local Government

I wrote the column below, which will appear in today’s edition of the Colby Free Press, to call on local government officials to provide more open discussions on issues that impact the community.

Backroom deals and private meetings are alive and well in Colby government–and that drives this reporter nuts.

This newspaper has been deliberately and specifically excluded from at least two city government events in just the last few months: an awards banquet and community concerns, a regular once-monthly meeting between government officials. Such a blatant attempt to keep information away from the media leads this libertarian to question what they’re trying to hide.

I even offered to let a city official read any story I wrote on the banquet before it was published so he could make sure it was accurate, if that was his concern. Still, we were excluded. His excuse was his theory that the employees would not have any fun if a newspaper reporter was there.

Why would the City of Colby refuse to allow a reporter to cover a city employees’ awards banquet that many of the city’s employees attend, along with the city manager and council representatives? What are they doing that needs to stay hidden away from public view?

Maybe nothing. Or maybe something sneaky. The point is that we as the newspaper and, consequently, we as a public, have no way of knowing because the city exercised its legal right to keep us out of their gathering.

The city, along with other government offices, exercises that same right regularly, meeting in private on the second Monday of every month. They call the meeting “community concerns,” but the community is not invited to participate. Only community leaders, in the privacy of a back room at a local restaurant, get to participate in these discussions–discussions which may determine the fate of local business projects, government funding attempts, taxation and who knows what else that will impact the daily life of you and me.

These meetings are kept secret, as far as I can tell, and our reporters’ attempts to even sit and listen to the discussion have been turned away. Those who participate rarely have a quorum of any governing body, thus avoiding Kansas’ open government laws that would otherwise require the meeting to be open to the public.

I was able to attend one meeting, thanks to a somewhat accidental quorum of one government body attending that meeting, and I was surprised to see the number of government agencies represented in such a private discussion: the county commission, the city manager, the city mayor, the city council, the economic development board and more. I was very clearly not welcomed by the group and, according to one source, members of the group complained extensively afterward about having a reporter at their meeting.

Since then, another reporter on our staff has tried repeatedly to attend these government meetings but with no luck. He was even told by one city official that, should he show up at one of the meetings, no one would say anything because they didn’t want their discussions in the newspaper.

Why? Again, what are they hiding? What can’t the public know about discussions that may have a significant impact on their daily lives?

These are the people who determine the major happenings in Colby, so why can’t their constituents have a view on their discussions or a voice in those discussions?

If everything is decided in a private discussion or at a private event before it comes up for a vote at someplace like a city council or county commissioners’ meeting, the public never really gets an opportunity to have their say. And that’s not the goal of Kansas’ open government laws.

I call on those government officials who take such care to keep their dealings private to open the doors a bit more. Let the media and the public see what you are doing at your private events and backroom meetings. Keeping things secret looks suspicious to most members of the public, this reporter included, but if you aren’t doing anything shady why not let the sunshine in?

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