Several years ago I attended a government commission meeting where an appointed chairman openly rejected an assistant attorney general’s recommendation to convene an executive session.
“No, I don’t think we need an executive session to talk about this,” the chairman said, to the best of my recollection.
It’s not that every — or even most — public bodies are eager to shut their doors to the public. It’s that confidence is inspired in government when the doors remain open when the real decision-making process begins.
That agency was the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. And the chairman was Gary Scaramazzo, a former mayor of Page, who volunteered to help administer and enforce a difficult campaign finance system rife with judgment calls.
There is an interesting parallel that could be drawn to the present day. The CCEC, like the Independent Redistricting Commission, also was enabled by voters who ushered in electoral reforms designed — or at least sold — as means to increase the power of the general public and to tear down a few walls built by politicians and their special interest enablers.
The CCEC in the past several years has received its share of criticism. It’s not hard to notice that the criticism has been almost exclusively directed toward the particulars of the system, namely matching funds, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled violate the free speech rights of privately funded candidates and independent interest groups.
Largely missing from the equation has been anger directed at the commission, which, due to the open-nature and dedication of Executive Director Todd Lang, has for the most part avoided personally offending lawmakers and the general public. This occurred even as Lang, facing years of legislative referendum attempts to repeal Clean Elections, has openly griped that many of the same lawmakers seeking to ban public financing for candidates owe their legislative beginnings to Clean Elections.
The lack of personal animosity displayed toward Lang and the commission, it can be argued, is because he has largely been open with his dealings and thoughts. And all the while, he and the commission (at least for the latter half of the past decade) have done their job without appearing egregious or biased or secretive.
For several weeks, my colleague, Evan Wyloge, has examined records held by the Independent Redistricting Commission and determined that the IRC has spent what anyone would regard as an inordinate amount of time hunkered in executive session.
First impressions are important. From its inception until June 29, when it awarded its mapping consulting contract, the IRC spent 37 of 74 hours of its public hearings behind closed doors. The commission’s votes have split the body down party lines and the independent chairwoman has sided with the panel’s Democrats on two major decisions.
Members of the commission recently attempted to defend its frequent use of executive session, which they said was prevalent due to the fact that the commission was engaging in a sensitive mission — hiring vital help. It was explained as a procurement “phase,” and the explanation is partially understandable.
It still wouldn’t account for the abandonment of the commission by state procurement officials. That divorce happened in executive session, and so remains unexplained by the commission’s staff, members, attorneys and the State Procurement Office, which has closed the door on the matter and shut off the lights.
The IRC has its own power to contract without the state supervision required of other agencies. But nothing within that power demands routine secret meetings. It also seems difficult to imagine that a surprise SPO-IRC divorce would give the commission greater privacy from prying eyes. It’s equally hard to imagine that it would justify the commission retaining only portions of its evaluation files on all seven of the original mapping consultant applicants.
Maybe there is a simple explanation for all of this. Maybe there is a disturbing one. Maybe there wouldn’t be a question at all if the components of at least one major IRC decision to date had been addressed with the lights on. The press, which is a conduit between government and the public in many cases, shouldn’t have to file records requests to capture even a partial picture of government business.
Maybe Gary was on to something.
— Christian Palmer is the associate editor of the Yellow Sheet Report.