Government secrecy spawns unaccountability

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Government secrecy is the enemy of participant democracy. That’s why we’re committed as a newspaper to fighting this scourge at every level of government.

And that’s why we’ll continue to question the widespread practice of discussing local government appointments behind closed doors.

Tuesday, we reported that the Auburn City Council had received a mild rebuke from the state Attorney General’s Office for going into an executive session when councilors did not have enough votes to do so.

The question was first raised by Ed Desgrosseilliers, chair of the tax reform group United Citizens of Auburn. In January, Mayor Normand Guay presented a list of names he wanted to appoint to a citizens’ committee to examine city spending.

The Attorney General’s Office said the vote was a small technical matter and didn’t warrant fines, punishment or reversal. Be that as it may, we challenge the entire practice of discussing candidates for public appointments behind closed doors.

It’s fair to point out that councilors Bethel Shields, Bob Hayes and Kelley Matzen voted against going into the secret executive session. Bravo for them. But four other councilors overrode them.

According to Councilor Belinda Gerry, who made the motion to go into executive session to discuss the appointments, “There were names there that I was unfamiliar with, and I wanted to know who they were before I voted on them.”

If Councilor Gerry was curious, didn’t it occur to her that the public might be, too?

The law provides that government bodies in Maine may go into executive session if they think the discussion may harm the reputations of the people being discussed.

The key word here is “may.” They don’t have to, and they should avoid doing so at all costs.

And here’s why: Taking these discussions behind closed doors is an open invitation to backroom character assassination. Councilors can say anything about anybody behind closed doors, regardless of the truth or proof of their accusations.

It’s often said that when it comes to the truth, sunshine is the best disinfectant. If Councilor Gerry were simply seeking honest information about the people being appointed, why not do that in open session?

If, however, she was interested in slinging some mud, then we can understand her desire to do that in secret. In fact, if she didn’t plan on saying something harmful about somebody in secret, then the executive session would be unjustified under law.

The public will, of course, never know what she or other councilors said about the mayor’s proposed appointees. And that’s unfortunate.

For democracy to survive and thrive, we need an informed electorate and citizenry. Conducting the public’s business in secret discourages understanding and participation.

Worse, it allows government officials to be unaccountable for their words and actions.

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