‘I think heroic deeds were all conceived in the open air’

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Editor’s Note: In the spirit of Walt Whitman, the following editorial should be taken as a guideline on the use of executive sessions by our band councils, Cree Nation Government, Cree-owned businesses, Cree government commissions, boards or entities – as well as school and health boards. Our membership should hold their elected officials and publicly owned organizations to the standards listed below.

By Brian J. Hunhoff

The quote above is from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of the Open Road” – a cheerful 1856 tribute to freedom and the great outdoors. I’m confident Whitman would have approved use of his line to promote open, well-aired government. It’s unlikely the great poet favoured government secrecy and closed-door meetings. As he also wrote, “Out of the dark confinement, out from behind the screen!”

For today’s purposes, Whitman’s “screen” represents the executive session – a self-important term for a classic oxymoron: closed public meetings. Too many elected councils and boards seek every opportunity to meet out of sight of the public they serve. Some schedule executive sessions as a regular agenda item.

In most cases, executive sessions do not violate open meeting laws. The closed-door discussions are at times suggested or encouraged by an elected band’s or a board of directors’ legal counsel.

But legality and necessity are two different things. These are our Ten Commandments for Open Meetings:

  1. Do not gather as a quorum outside of regular meetings, and do not hold special meetings without giving at least 30 days public notice.
  2. Do not habitually add last-minute items to the agenda, and do not act on anything not listed on the posted agenda.
  3. Do not abuse the litigation excuse for executive sessions to speculate about possible or imagined lawsuits.
  4. Do not abuse the personnel excuse for executive sessions to discuss policy issues. Example: Creating a new position or changing a department’s job descriptions are policy decisions and not appropriate topics for a closed meeting.
  5. Avoid the “negotiations” excuse to suddenly exclude the public from discussion of controversial issues.
  6. Do not allow executive session conversations to stray to other topics.
  7. Do not violate the spirit of the open meeting law with frequent phone, email or text dialogues with other members.
  8. Avoid whispering or passing notes at meetings. Tell members what you have to say out loud.
  9. Allow public input at every meeting. Include it on every agenda.
  10. Be as transparent as possible. Bring those financial documents to the meeting and make them public. We have a right to hold you accountable for your actions.

Ultimately, our representatives need to ask themselves, “Is it absolutely critical we discuss this privately?”

We appreciate our elected leaders and board members. They make tough decisions. They sometimes lose friends and make enemies. Their dedication to community is admirable. They often perform the “heroic deeds” Whitman celebrated in his poetry.

We simply ask elected and appointed officials to think twice before kicking the public out of public meetings.

Brian Hunhoff writes for the Yankton County Observer in Yankton, South Dakota.

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