“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy: or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
— John Adams
In preparing for a recent University of North Alabama seminar on freedom of information, I was amazed how many times local and state officials try to conduct the public’s business in secret.
This topic may not be as sexy as details about Kate Middleton’s morning sickness, or debating whether Auburn’s new football coach is a good pick.
But readers should take interest in open government and be infuriated by the way certain officials conduct the public’s business.
At the UNA event, I served on a discussion panel with Dr. Charles Davis, an expert on freedom of information issues from the University of Missouri, and Bruce McLellan, online editor for the TimesDaily and The Decatur Daily. We came to the seminar armed with examples of government officials being less than transparent.
Just two weeks ago, for example, the Florence Board of Education went into executive session before filling a vacant board seat. Chairman Bill Jordan said the group limited its secret discussion to “good name and character.” He said there were character concerns about particular applicants, but added that the character of all the applicants was discussed.
Board members are allowed by law to discuss good name and character of a candidate in private, but they are not allowed to talk about the qualifications of candidates.
“If the good name and character of all eight candidates needed to be discussed, maybe they didn’t have very good candidates,” Alabama Press Association attorney Dennis Bailey said.
Immediately after leaving the secret meeting and reconvening in public, school board members voted to appoint a new member. Amazingly, they were able to reach unanimous agreement without discussion.
Bailey said the appointment had the tell-tale signs that the board deliberated in secret.
I am sure that members of the school board — and any number of other local officials — would not hesitate to stand alongside students at school events and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance. They would be happy to pontificate on the great freedoms of democracy and honor those who have fought and died to defend it.
They also should consider how democracy applies to their own behavior.
Executive Editor Scott Morris can be reached at 256-740-5721 or scott.morris@TimesDaily.com.