One of my journalism professors, the venerable Sam Archibald, taught that there was never a reason for government to slip behind closed doors.
Nothing in government, he said, deserved secrecy. Even discussions about whether or not to expel a student, a delicate matter usually made sacrosanct by even the most liberal of freedom of information rules, could be done in full view and light of public scrutiny.
Governments don’t agree. It’s not that they are doing anything particularly sneaky, mind you. It’s just that government is much more efficient without all that oversight and a misunderstanding public poking their fingers in everything.
If they could, he said, governments would never open their doors to the public — not for the simplest, most mundane, basic discussion. It’s not easy getting them to open up, he said, and he quoted the Bible: Acts 9: 5-6: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
I’m thinking about those lessons a lot, especially with this latest dust-up with the Lewiston City Council. I think this situation would have driven him into fits, spins and incredulous, profanity filled rants.
Basically, Maine’s rules for open meetings favor government. There’s a list of reasons they can shut the doors; labor negotiations, land trades and the especially broad “consultations with their attorney”.
This current council wasn’t able to agree on anything until Tuesday night. They started out on a bad foot, way back in 2007, meeting secretly in compliance with the law but flouting common sense and public duty. They’ve progressed from name calling to secret e-mail meetings to other kinds of secret huddles. They’ve been unable to agree with each other on much of anything.
They had one last split, contentious vote Tuesday night before they went into executive session — they couldn’t even agree about that. But they came out, each spouting the same two-word party line — no comment — and they’ve held that silence ever since. Attorney- client privilege, they say. The law is on their side.
But the law doesn’t mention hurt feelings, and I think that’s what the current controversy comes down to.
In the end, they’re just hurting themselves. Sam Archibald’s basic point was that secrets are really only juicy and fun as long as they’re secret. As soon as the facts come out, as soon as everyone says “Ahh. that’s what all that nonsense was about,” people move on.
They’re supposed to release a written statement this afternoon, but I don’t think the issue is finished. As long as they try to hold on to their secrets like a dog in the manger, people will continue talking about it. It’s just human nature.
They pretty much guarantee that I’ll be writing about this for some time to come.