Private Meetings Protect The Elite, Not The Public

There are a lot of reasons why the colonies went to war for independence from England, but the most prominent was they had no voice in issues that affected them.

That’s why I don’t understand that no matter how often the topic is brought up, government officials somehow think it’s perfectly fine to hide public matters from their taxpayers. While some may have good intentions, their actions can lead to unforeseen consequences.

Grand Forks City Council member Bret Weber called a meeting inviting only those he deemed fit to discuss how to keep his city from becoming known for hosting “hate speech.”

I’m not going to get into the First Amendment debate, because I can’t decide what should be deemed offensive. That job belongs to the Supreme Court. And I’m not going to defend or prosecute Usama Dakdok.

But what Weber failed to realize is he attempted to solve a problem that would affect the public without consulting the public. He originally intended to not allow media — and by extension, the public — to observe the meeting. His reason: He wanted to make sure everyone felt comfortable speaking freely.

While Weber was convinced by the Herald to allow the media and the public to attend the meeting, his intention was to, in private, decide on “efforts to clearly express that this is an inclusive and welcoming community,” as he put it. There may have not been a city quorum, but what he and other leaders wished to discuss could affect the future of Grand Forks.

Weber has very good intentions to protect his community, but the way he intended to solve them went against the very principles of our founding fathers: He tried to discuss a very public matter away from the public eye, denying the residents he wanted to protect the voice they deserve.

Open records and meetings laws may seem like a silly thing to get upset about, but there are reasons they are in place. We deserve to know how are tax money is put to use. Also, when governmental entities discuss policies that are going to affect an individual’s life, that resident better get his shot to voice his opinion before a final decision is made.

And these laws aren’t just for journalists. Any resident can go into City Hall and get the same documents journalists can. They can attend meetings, and they can be involved.

But journalists are a source that provides the public with information, including when it comes to government procedures. So when someone blocks the media, he or she blocks the public’s source of information. In other words, you tell your residents their voices don’t matter.

I’ve been told I should trust my government. There is a difference between trusting and blindly accepting authority. I’ve dealt with plenty of officials who felt they had the right to close meetings and records — some that had hid nothing nefarious, others that greatly impacted institutions and communities, sometimes leaving taxpayers to foot excessive bills.

Open records and meetings laws are not there to just protect the media. They exist to protect residents so the government cannot secretly manage its people and so entities can be held accountable for their actions. They give citizens the right to see their officials in action and, if needed, they can take action themselves.

This isn’t about protecting freedom of speech or preventing discrimination. This is about protecting the right of the people to be heard, a right for which our founding fathers fought hard to gain. It’s a right all government officials must protect, not fight in order to protect themselves.

When it comes to discussing business that affects the public, it must take place in a public setting so all have a chance to speak, not with a select few deemed worthy by a man in power.

Weber may want to protect his community from discrimination, but he should start with protecting the rights of his residents by ensuring they all have a voice. Then he’ll show he values everyone’s opinion instead of making sure his chosen few are comfortable speaking their mind.

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