Public business must continue to be done in public

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The smoke-filled rooms where political deals used to be made have been replaced by computer displays and exchanges of e-mails.

That's at the heart of a ruling that has state attorneys general scrambling to protect open meeting laws that are at the heart of our system of government.

A three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that two members of the Alpine, Texas, city council had First Amendment rights to discuss city business via e-mail, and should not be guilty of violating Texas open meeting laws.

The case started in October 2004 when two of Alpine's five city council members traded e-mails discussing the hiring of engineers for a city water project. The e-mails were forwarded to two other council members before a public hearing on the project.

In February 2005, the local district attorney subpoeanaed the four council members to testify about the e-mail exchange before a state grand jury, which indicted two of them a week later.

A state judge dismissed the criminal charges, but in September 2005, one of the council members who had been charged, and another who had not, filed the lawsuit seeking to stop enforcement of the open meeting laws.

Ann Heath, an attorney for a government watchdog group, called the 5th Circuit ruling a "scary case" because "open meetings are just the tip of the iceberg. Public records could be next."

Attorneys general from more than a dozen states -- Nebraska included -- agree and have signed on to a request for a federal appeals court in New Orleans to review the ruling.

Yes, public officials need to be able to discuss public business candidly, but they need to remember it's public money they are spending. Most public officials are honest, but too many have yielded to the temptation to cash in on their position.

With news organizations facing economic struggles, public bodies are under less scrutiny than ever. Rarely are other media present at local school board, City Council or county meetings covered by the Gazette, and too often the public receives its information second-hand or filtered through official channels.

Unless specifically exempted for legitimate reasons, all information available to public boards, e-mail included, must continue to be available to the public.

Open meeting laws must be updated to match 21st century realities. Public business must be conducted in public.

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