By: Benjamin J. Gohs, News Editor
Sunshine Week officially ended on St. Patrick’s Day, and I know what you’re thinking: “Why do I, John Q. Public and Mary Jane Citizen give a hairy rat’s hiney about Sunshine Week?”
You may also be thinking: “How can I still be hung over from Saturday?” But, that’s a completely different issue.
To be sure, the observance of Sunshine Week tends to be something only bleary-eyed journalists get excited about.
After all, getting hold of information and disseminating it to the public puts food on our tables and moderately priced scotch in our glasses.
And, normally we would simply run a house ad informing the gentle readers of the Boyne City Gazette that this week was a reminder that it is our solemn and vital duty to seek the truth so we can better serve the citizens, but in light of recent events involving the public’s right to know at both the county and city levels, I was compelled to go one further.
It took a court case to determine that some information held by county officials should be released to the public while some should not. And, a rather lengthy discussion preceded the decision to hold the first meeting of the Kirtland noise issue citizens committee open to the public … and then another discussion at that meeting to determine if they should remain open to the public.
Obviously opinions on these two separate matters differ greatly from person to person, but during both instances I had conversations with parties who have very different ideas of what the public’s right to know truly should be.
Some believe government operates best in a fog. Over and over again the implication, by a few, was made that the only way people could have an open and honest discussion regarding the Kirtland noise issue is if it were had behind closed doors.
Further, if you are the type of person who is unwilling to discuss your true feelings in public then you have no business serving any official capacity, and I question the judgment and motivation of anyone who feels the public is a mere bystander before municipal machinations.
In my time I have seen many a man, afire with the spirit of openness while running for office, who turned cold and secretive once elected. There exists a very real “us verses them” mentality in governance, from the smallest board to the most prestigious congressional sub-committee.
Fortunately, despite the efforts of some to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of the Kirtland citizens committee members ruled that the meetings should be open except in cases where more harm than good would come from doing so in public.
The committee members who chose to keep those meetings open did more than simply earn goodwill with the press. They helped ensure information from this very public matter remains open to the public. After all, some of the committee members are paid by public funds. At least some of the monies that will be used to pay the consultant(s) will come from Boyne City’s Economic Development Corporation, a tax-funded entity, and the outcome issue is of great concern to the citizens of Boyne City.
Some have repeated the mantra that this is merely an “advisory committee” and therefore has not real power, and that the city commission will make the ultimate decision. But, consider this: This “advisory committee” is performing all the research to hire the consultant(s) and overseeing said consultant(s) once they have been hired to help determine the source of the noise and whether there are any measurable emissions, and then this “advisory committee” will make a recommendation to the city commission based on what it learns from said consultant. If city commissioners do not take that recommendation, then upon what knowledge would they be basing their decision? If the city commissioners were ultimately (hypothetically speaking) planning to do their own “legwork” on the matter, then what would have been the point of having the committee? No, the truth is this committee holds a great amount of power, the power to see the citizens of Boyne City can have peace in their homes and businesses, and the power to ensure Kirtland can continue to operate and make a profit while maintaining the needed jobs it has created for said community.
I think the citizens committee has done a great job of moving forward so far and they have also been very fair on keeping most of their meetings open. I have no doubt they will find solutions to the issues at hand.
And, to be fair, there are a few instances when public servants should have the option for secrecy: matters of national security, employee personnel issues or financial actions which rely on closed bidding.
But, when publicly funded officials, public budgets and public property are involved, the public has a right to know nearly everything they do and every penny they spend – including an awful lot of things that are currently off limits to them.
So, you were asking yourself why you should care?
And, maybe you don’t.
But, that’s OK, because we do.
The very first thing my old mentor told me when I started in this business was that I’d better love it because I would not get rich.
He was right: I do love it and I do care … and every day I make it my personal mission to see that those in power – even in an advisory capacity – are held accountable for what they do with that which belongs to the public.
For me every week is sunshine week.
Benjamin J. Gohs is the Boyne City Gazette News Editor and sometimes contributor of opinion columns. He can be reached at (231) 222-2119. Send your angry letters to P.O. Box 77 East Jordan MI, 49727.