provide the public with a real view of agency decision-making say that the fault lies with the agency members. They are public officials, and despite the concerns cited above, they should be forced to 'deliberate' in public. In other words, it's not the Sunshine Act that needs reforming, it's the public officials."
Just maybe, he's hit on something. The difference between private business and government is that government conducts the public's business and Congress and state legislatures have uniformly made the determination that much of the public's business is best conducted in public. Many members of federal agencies, such as the NRC, come from industry where they are used to making decisions behind closed doors. When they find out they have to make decisions in public, it is an experience that runs counter to the way in which they have made decisions throughout their professional lives. But even in publicly owned corporations, stockholders can attend annual meetings and often grill company officials about their decisions.
Suggesting that people are incapable of deliberating in public is to admit that most people feel more comfortable in small groups than in large ones. Many people are hesitant to speak up in a group for fear of sounding foolish. But should classes at public universities, for example, be conducted on a one-on-one tutorial level to save students from the potential embarrassment of asking the professor a foolish question before the class? Commissioners at the NRC or SEC are, hopefully, men and women of considerable professional achievement, knowledgeable and articulate in their fields. These are not the kind of people who we should assume will cringe at the idea of allowing the public to follow their deliberations.
Allowing such agencies to deliberate outside the public view is nothing short of inviting them to make decisions in secret. Most communities would not stand for their city councils or school boards to routinely meet in private to conduct clearly public business. And when they do, the case law suggests that courts sanction them for their improper, if not illegal, behavior.
Making decisions in public is not a perfect solution in all instances, and there probably are situations in which public bodies should have an opportunity to reflect about some of the issues involved in reaching a decision without holding a public meeting in every instance. But the democratic principles at stake in the idea that public business should take place in public are so great that we should not dilute the statutes that preserve that right without very serious consideration.
Harry Hammitt is editor/publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter published in Lynchburg, Va., covering open government laws and information policy issues. E-mail: