Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fighting for Transparency in Salem: Revising the “Sunshine Ordinance”

City Hall Desks

Tomorrow night, July 9th, there will be a special meeting of the Salem City Council Sunshine Ordinance subcommittee to discuss proposed changes to Salem’s “sunshine ordinance” laws.

Quoting Maggie Lemelin Towne, Administrative Coordinator, Alliance of Salem Neighborhood Associations in today’s News:

The Sunshine Ordinance, as approved by the City Council in September 2005, requires the city to post meeting schedules, meeting agendas, legal notices, bids, RFPs, RFQs and all city reports and filings made by the city. Additionally, it provides a facility for citizens to sign up to receive automatic e-mail notifications of scheduled meetings, with agendas, for all governing bodies, and requires the posting of meeting minutes within nine days of the meeting. These components have provided the City of Salem with transparency in government, a modern sensibility to our open meeting laws and easy access for all citizens to be engaged and involved in the governmental process.

Recently, significant changes have been proposed to the ordinance, including removing the e-mail subscription service for meeting agendas, changing the requirement for meeting minutes from 9 days to 47 days, and eliminating the requirement to post city contracts and required legal reports.

I have philosophical differences with Salem’s neighborhood associations, but I have to stand with them on this point.  I’ve been standing for transparency ever since I began filming meetings of the Commission on Disabilities nearly 10 years ago.  This is what I told my colleagues in email last week and this is what I hope to say at the Council tomorrow night:

Next Thursday there is an important meeting of the Council that I would like you to attend.

You may have seen a letter in the Salem News last week “Let Sun Shine on Salem City Hall” [an earlier letter on the same topic] and you may have seen my comment to that letter online.

Ever since I began videotaping Commission meetings 10 years ago, I’ve come to believe very much in openness.  Except for those times we have to maintain someone’s privacy, we have done our business in full view of the people of Salem.  This openness has made us one of the most effective Commissions on Disabilities in the state.

It wasn’t always like that. 

I believe we are far ahead of the rest of city government.  I want us to set the example for openness, but I also want to do all I can to encourage the other boards and commissions in the City to open up their business as much as they can.

It’s not easy to ask for.  Indeed, I’ve had trouble taping meetings for my personal blog just a few months ago.  Not everyone in government sees the importance of this.  Even our state senator doesn’t understand it.  We love Senator Berry very much and consider him a proud member of our disability community, but if you’ve been following the news about our state’s new ethic laws, he closed meetings to the public not because they were sensitive or under executive session, but just because of “tradition”.

There seems to be too much of that “tradition” going along.  I remember years ago when SATV first got cameras in City Hall and Lynn refused to put cameras in their city hall because “there was no air conditioning there!”  It didn’t take a cynic to read between the lines and realize the cameras were not in Lynn also “for tradition’s sake.”

But for every time a public meeting is not covered, people complain about conspiracies;  sometimes SATV has technical problems and people accuse them of colluding with Mayor Driscoll or other officials to hide the tapes;  there is no such thing; we have no secret tapes.  The only way people can really trust government is to be as open as we can possibly be.

This has downsides;  sometimes we in our great familiarity in our meetings, forget that.  Other times we need to be very respectful of our citizens’ privacy and the understanding that not everyone with a disability can “come out”.  Chairpersons everywhere in the city have to balance what they put out in public and what is done privately in the course of their business.  They must balance transparency regulations against their ability to meet them.  I won’t say it’s easy and we have struggled with these issues in our own commission. 

We live in a time when it’s fashionable and even required to deeply resent and hate our government.  We hear from many who would want government to do nothing and just go away.   People don’t trust our government: Salem, Massachusetts, or the US, and there is not a thing we can do about it just by saying up and down that “we’re honest, we don’t lie and we don’t cheat, trust us!”

We have to show our hand.  People need to see the routine, mundane and even boring things we do to run the City.  They need to see what we see.  And if they see something they don’t like, I want them to be able to call us out, not to resort to talk radio or the comments section of the local newspaper. 

But they can only see that when they can see us.  Openness and transparency are the only ways we can get back our legitimacy and get the trust of the citizens of Salem, just as they put trust in our Commission.