It is that time of year again – time for the annual request for our local town governments to be as open and transparent as possible.
In last year's New Year’s resolution column three requests were made of the towns – improve email collections for public records requests, follow the spirit of the law (not just the letter of the law) when it comes to open meetings, and respect the will of the voters when it comes to filling vacancies in local town Boards. While none of the towns passed ordinances that explicitly addressed these, incremental changes could be seen in positive directions on all of them.
That's a very good thing.
So, in the spirit of starting the new year off on a positive note, here is something a couple of or towns did which improved transparency that was not even on last year's list.
This past August Davidson began live streaming of its public meetings using UStream.tv -becoming the first of the North Meck towns to offer this to citizens. To date, the various videos have received a total of almost 1000 views. That may not seem like much, but when you consider that most meetings are relatively dull having few if any citizens attending, having video available does make a relatively significant difference. If nothing else, it makes it easier for the media to accurately report on what happened. The real difference is made when there is something of high community interest. For example, the video of the community meeting on Davidson’s controversial Downtown Catalyst Project received 226 view - proving that video availability significantly improves the reach of Town Hall when there is something people really want to see.
An added bonus is that this service is very economical. Hosting the live streaming, which also allows for commercial free viewing, costs the town only $99/month. Soon, Davidson won't be the only local town to offer video of its meetings. One of the first items approved by Huntersville after the last elections was to set up a similar service. With many new faces on Huntersville’s Board, this certainly will be a good new way for residents to put “faces with names” and get familiar with the new leaders.
Adding video is definitely a positive step for transparency.
But…you knew there was a “but” didn't you? There is always more work to be done when it comes to shining light on the public’s business. Here are two policies all town boards could implement easily to ensure as much openness as possible.
1. Require each elected official to copy a central town “public records” email box on their communications. This can easily be done and is particularly important if an elected official ends up communicating what should be a public record on a private eat I account. Town Clerks are responsible for being the keeper of a town’s public records. Their jobs should be made as easy as possible and they should not be forced to try to always track down messages from individual officials.
2. Each town should implement firm policies or rules of conduct outlining exactly when elected officials and even advisory board members should publicly disclose if they might have even the perception of a conflict of interest. The State law is very specific about when elected officials can be recused. It is much less often than one might think, and it leaves plenty of room for people to rationalize away why they might not need to recuse themselves from voting or participating in a discussion. Town policies making it very clear when something should be disclosed would go a long way to strengthening public trust. At the very least, making that thought process less ambiguous would let citizens know when someone was not following policy.
All of the activism that has gone on around various issues during the last year has stated to improve things at the most local level when it comes to transparency. Taking these two steps would be a sign the town boards are serious about taking it to the next level.
This column first appeared in this week’s Herald Weekly at HuntersvilleHerald.com