Today is the 222nd anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that guarantee so many freedoms from government excess that we often take for granted.
In Tempe this past week a Valley newspaper reported that members of the City Council refused to answer questions about public business. More on that in a minute.
The first 10 amendments protect the basic exercise of liberty through free speech and press, freedom to worship, bear arms, trial by impartial jury, freedom from wrongful search and seizure, and so on.
While there is no stated “right to know,” U.S. Supreme Court decisions since our nation’s founding have combined to determine that without an informed citizenry, the people cannot exercise their power as the ultimate authority, to whom even the President of the United States must answer.
We learn about our government through a variety of sources, starting with the government itself, through the investigations and questions of an independent news media, and through the inquiries of the people themselves.
We ask our leaders questions and demand answers.
The Arizona Republic reported Wednesday that, on the advice of their city attorney, six of the seven Tempe City Council members refused to answer a reporter’s questions about whether they would postpone a vote on the General Plan, a city’s guiding document on matters such as city planning and zoning for new and rebuilding projects.
The reason? According to the Republic story, it was that answering a reporter’s questions about the possible General Plan postponement might violate the Arizona Open Meetings Law.
Now, an attitude of compliance with a law requiring elected officials’ debate of a matter to be conducted in public is to be applauded, and I’m sure that’s in compliance with what the city attorney was trying to advise the council to do. But stating how you feel about an issue — even saying how you plan to vote on that issue — is hardly an exercise in trying to persuade your fellow officials to vote a certain way.
We all know how polls of voters taken days, weeks, months ahead of any election vary widely from the actual election results, because polls can only tell how respondents feel about something on the day they were asked. The same thing applies here.
The actual vote isn’t taken until the officials are gathered in public session. A City Council member, for example, can tell a reporter a week before he or she is to vote on a matter that he or she plans to vote for it, then after hearing testimony and fellow council members’ arguments at the public meeting a week later, can legally decide to vote against it and do so.
What the Open Meetings Law does forbid is a sort of meeting of the minds, a collegial situation, either in person or electronically, where members can have access to others’ views, respond to them and seek to convince colleagues of something, and so on. A 2005 legal opinion by then-Attorney General Terry Goddard warned about officials’ use of email to talk about issues as it could indeed create that kind of electronic roundtable.
But there’s no justification for citing the Arizona Open Meetings Law as the reason for declining to speak to a reporter, or any member of the public, for that matter.
If these were isolated incidents, this wouldn’t be so disconcerting, but right here in the East Valley, the majority of another public body, on the advice of its attorney, agreed to the same mum’s-the-word act based on this weird interpretation of the Open Meetings Law.
In February 2007, the Tribune reported members of the Scottsdale school board received similar advice from their lawyer. No particular proposal was at issue; the advice came at the board’s annual brush-up workshop on the Open Meetings Law.
Even though most of us would say we’d rather hear less talk from politicians, when elected officials don’t talk, it’s only natural to think they have something they don’t want to say, whether that’s actually the case or not.
News media are there to ask public officials questions the rest of us wish we could be there to ask them. Trying to make a statement of how one official feels into some sort of discussion among all of them is not only taking a big leap, it frustrates the public’s right to know what those they elect are thinking.
Empowered with that knowledge, you never know what the public might do: Oh, I don’t know, try to tell their representatives why they should change their minds?
• Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.