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Pike Co. Commission

takes step forward

March 14, 2000 10 PM

The Pike County Commission made a move in the right direction Monday when members voted to seek an Attorney General opinion regarding whether or not a County Commission can take a ballot vote in an open meeting.

Two weeks ago, commissioners voted by paper ballot in an open meeting when they sought to make a decision about who would be Pike County’s Emergency Management Agency director. Though the tally of the vote was made public, commissioners did not give the public access to how each commissioner voted.

The Messenger took issue with the vote and worked with commissioners and various attorneys to resolve the issue. Though the specifics of what commissioners did were not covered in open meeting laws, the attorney for the commission felt that commissioners could, under a statute, vote secretly, while some other attorneys disagreed.

The commission, on advice from legal counsel, decided to seek the Attorney General’s opinion on the matter to strengthen the language of open meeting laws and to clarify any murky areas within the law.

We believe the decision was a good one, though we disagree with commissioners about whether or not their action was within the spirit of the law.

Sunshine laws are designed to keep citizens abreast of what their elected officials are doing, and circumventing the intent of those laws based on vague technicalities doesn’t seem appropriate to us.

Our concern stems from the idea that if commissioners can prevent disclosure of their individual votes in public meetings, what is to stop them from concealing their votes on other issues that affect the public? Theoretically, commissioners could vote secretly on tax hikes, road repair and construction and numerous other things it is charged with handling.

The argument is a legal one, but one we feel is well worth making in order to ensure public access to the decision-making process of our various government bodies.

Commissioners tabled a re-vote on the EMA director, opting to hold off until all members are present. We understand their position and are hopeful that a public vote will be forthcoming in the following weeks.

We appreciate the willingness of commissioners to move beyond the issue and to seek resolution on it, though we feel the issue could have easily been avoided in the first place through a public vote.

We look forward to seeing our public meeting and record laws being strengthened, not to ensure newspaper access to information, but to ensure public access. A public without knowledge of what its leaders are doing cannot make informed decisions at election time.

Seeking an authoritative opinion on this matter is the right thing to do at this point, and we believe the commission has taken a step forward by doing so, though only time and the Attorney General can dictate the outcome.