Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Closed-door mediation necessary for Tulsa City Council, mayor to be 'frank and open,' proposed mediator says

Mediation between the Tulsa City Council and Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. must take place behind closed doors for there to be "frank and open discussion," one of the proposed mediators told the Tulsa World this week.

“They need to feel that they can say something and it not be used against them legally, politically and socially,” said Daniel Boudreau, a former state Supreme Court justice.

“Honestly, people are not going to be (open) if journalists are sitting there reporting everything they say,” he said. “People would posture. They would not be candid.”

Well, I've heard the same argument put forth by other public bodies in Oklahoma and in other states. It was a heaping load of horse excrement elsewhere, too.

As Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association said about Tulsa officials' reluctance to resolve their problems publicly:
They're saying as elected officials, 'We don't want the public to know our true feelings. We want to say one thing behind closed doors and say something else at the coffee shop.'
Boudreau said he and the other proposed mediator, Sam Joyner, “can’t deny there’s a concern you could circumvent the spirit" of the Open Meeting Act.

“People have an absolute right to be informed about how government is working, and there ought to be transparency,” he said. “We are fully on board with that.

“You don’t want people using mediation to undercut the policy provisions of the act,” he said.

Of course, there was a "but."

Boudreau said only proposals would be discussed in the private mediation. “Any action you are going to take has to be explained, justified, argued and voted on for the record,” he said.

However, the pros and cons of those proposals won't be argued in plain view of the public. That will have taken place behind closed doors.

As a former Supreme Court justice, Boudreau is understandably comfortable with officials negotiating their differences of opinion behind closed doors. Granted, appellate courts issue their conclusions and reasoning in writing. But the public doesn't see the give-and-take, the exchange of ideas, that results in those decisions.

Our city councils, county commissions and other local public bodies don't operate with the same kind of secrecy as do courts.

Only an open deliberative process reveals which alternatives are rejected and why, both of which the public is entitled to know. (See 1982 OK AG 212, ¶ 5)

"The public is interested in how and why officials decide to act or not to act," said then-state Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright in 1982. (Id. at ¶ 6)

The stated purpose of the Open Meeting Act is “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems.” (Okla. Stat. tit. 25, § 302)

That understanding is diminished when public bodies hash out proposed solutions in private.

Political cowardice on the part of elected officials is not an excuse for conducting a closed executive session.

If these elected officials are afraid to speak openly, honestly and candidly in front of the public, then Tulsa voters should hire replacements in the next election.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications

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