teachers. The reason given for the closed session was personnel matters. Justifications like this indicate a general unwillingness to discuss perceived controversial topics in public. It is always easier to discuss such matters where no one is listening in. But the rationale for public attendance at such meetings is to emphasize that government decision-making at the board or commission level is open and above-board. Poorly reasoned justifications for closing meetings only tend to throw suspicion on the proceedings of the public body.

Personal experience may also inform a body's reluctance to meet in public. In the 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission lobbied hard to change some of the strictures imposed by the Sunshine Act, claiming in particular that the statute made it impossible to hold informal discussions before addressing an issue during a public meeting. While that is a realistic concern that may require an amendment, some reactions of the various commissioners seemed to be driven by their personal backgrounds. Several came from the private sector, where there is no tradition of making decisions in public, and there was often a sense that these commissioners could not understand why openness was a benefit rather than a punishment.

For members of public bodies who view openness as a ball and chain that impedes progress, any greater degree of openness is surely a punishment. But for those who believe openness is positive and a way to preserve democratic values, openness imposed more as a punishment than as a benefit should be viewed as a gift. When access to records and meetings is the goal, the legislative squabbles that produce the desired results are nothing more than a sideshow. Here, perhaps, the ends do justify the means.


Harry Hammitt is editor/publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter published in Lynchburg, Va., covering open-government laws and information-policy issues. Email.

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer