Thursday, January 31, 2008

Illegal Caucus Coverage

Fort Wayne Public 1 has now officially filed their complaint against the Republicans on city council for allegedly violating the open door law. Indiana News Center had a story about this yesterday which you can watch here. Also, in today's NS, Kathleen Quilligan covers the story:
A new citizens' watchdog group planned to file a formal complaint today with the state's public access counselor alleging Republican City Council members have violated the state's “open-door” law.

Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd District, told The News-Sentinel earlier this month the GOP met in caucus to decide which council members would be appointed to various city boards and commissions and who would be elected council president.

On Wednesday, Didier maintained the caucus was legal. He said it lasted about 30 minutes and consisted of him asking the attendees whether they had any interest in serving on such bodies as the Plan Commission. He said the caucus has been “blown out of proportion.”

“I would stand in front of a judge and put my hand on a Bible and say it: ‘We didn't do anything wrong.'”

Councilman Didier's opinion about whether or not he did anything wrong is immaterial if they did in fact violate the law. It's also quite telling that even in retrospect he doesn't see anything wrong with their actions. Deciding council business behind close doors only to have a rubber-stamped public meeting is wrong - both legally and ethically. Citizens in the information age demand open and transparent government and these types of private meetings don't live up to those demands.

5 comments:

dan said...

Re: Filing Formal Action with Indiana Public Access Counselor about City Council

One of Newscenter's questions was a very direct "Why are you doing this?" It needs to be answered here as it was not part of the final story.

It's simple: Public 1 is a citizen advocacy public interest group and open government is a major public interest issue.

That's it. The fact is the private majority gathering caucus is either allowed by law or it is not. There's only way to find out short of overkill by seeking an answer in court. This is an avenue created by the Open Door Law to obtain declaratory formal advisory opinions. Public 1 wants this clarification in order to foster open citizen involvement in civic affairs. If the public perceives that getting involved or being interested will do no good, the foundation of representative democracy erodes.

The opinion will have no bearing on the past and will provide clear direction for the future.

This issue goes beyond the City Council as does the scope of the Open Door Law. There have been issues time and again about various public bodies not conforming to the ODL in one form or another. Public 1 is simply a group of interested citizens who will challenge such instances and seek the overall public interest rather than have possible non-compliant situations only debated and not ever resolved. The News-Sentinel was right on target in coining the organization as a "watchdog"--their term and not mine. That is one of its purposes.

As for City Council members, these elected officials hold a position today marked by status of tremendous respect. Public 1 has applauded the candidates for seeking these offices and and has commended the winners.

There are 250,086 citizens of Fort Wayne according to the Census Bureau's most recent estimate and there are 9 Council members. We count on each of them to represent us and we do so with high expectations. The status of a Leader of the Legislative Branch of the 2nd largest City in the State of Indiana is a lofty one--bigger than the winner of the People's Choice awards or even American Idol. This is because along with winning comes a public trust, and we count on a public open process of representation every step of the way.

I truly believe that the Council members believe they did nothing wrong--certainly not by design. After all, it's been done this way for years; and last summer the former Council President had a similar meeting at his house over the city budget.

The problem with that is we don't know for sure if it is wrong or not, and Public 1 is seeking to find out. The other problem with that is that public trust means it looks like it may be wrong. It is not open and transparent. In Wisconsin, majority members of a public body are not even allowed to travel together to meetings in the same vehicle since it gives the "appearance" that they are making decisions under their ODL.

Does asking Tom Smith if he is interested in serving on the Plan Commission at a private meeting with the majority present a violation or not? It is if it is considered "decision making" under the ODL. It's not if it's considered "political strategy" under the ODL. In either case, it looks like it's not right. It gives the appearance of such and fails today's transprancy test.

Is public access denied when a majority private Decision caucus occurs? Yes, and here's why. There were no meaningful motions for other choices than the caucus choices at the Public Meeting (with one exception).

Why for example was there not a motion to elect Glynn Hines for President? After all, he is the elder statesman with the most seniority and is emminently qualified. What was the point if the perception was that the party vote would defeat a Hines motion since the majority party had already caucused over it and presumably decided how they would vote. That is denying the public open public discussion and debate of alternatives for something as crucial as Legislative Branch Leaders.

Maybe it wasn't decided in caucus. The PAC opinion will sort that out and make a ruling that every public body, besides the council, will then go by.

And that is why Public1 did the petition for an opinion from the State. We all need to know the boundaries of a Legal Caucus as we all further the cause of openness in goverment today and in the future.

Dan Jehl, Coordinator
Fort Wayne Public I, Inc.

dan said...

One important correction to original Comment needs to be made.

The summer meeting was NOT attended by the majority of GOP members according to a very reliable person.

The remaineder stands or falls on the future PAC ruling.

Jeff Pruitt said...

Sam Talarico left the following comment but it was somehow deleted:

"Jeff,

Let me get this straight.

The GOP majority decided who they are going to support to be City Utilities Chairman? and they printed this out on the meeting agenda because they could count to 5? And, this is news?

I am almost certain that for many years (while the council was under democratic control) that the President decided these appointments by his/herself with no input from anybody.

Do you think the Democrats in congress gave the republicans input on their new committee assignments?

If the Democrats want to appoint the Chairs and the board members, there is a simple answer. Win 5 seats.

Don Schmidt was on city council for 20 years BEFORE the democratic majority saw fit to make him VICE president for one year.

That's the way two party politics works. Does that make it right? no, but thats how it works. "

Jeff Pruitt said...

I think Dan Jehl's comment addresses much of Sam's response but I want to add the following:

It's not just about the City Utilities chairman Sam. It's the fact that they decided ALL the chairs/co-chairs, council attorney change, and the various appointments to boards and commissions. Why do this behind closed doors? Why not just discuss it at the council meeting? And your argument that this is how its always done rings hollow. The law says that a majority of council members cannot meet behind closed doors and make decisions on public business. It's unfortunate there wasn't a public advocacy group like FW Public 1 back when these prior abuses were taking place.

And it's not about this particular instance - far from it. It's about getting clarification on the law so everybody understands what can and cannot be done in the future. Didier's comments are quite frightening if you ask me. Now caucuses might make it easier on him and maybe the council meetings won't take as long, but if that's the only reason for them then I suggest he not run for re-election.

John B. Kalb said...

Dan Jehl - I believe in what Public 1 is doing in regard to this subject. I would like to point out that one of my major concerns with the actions of our Fort Wayne Redevelopment Department and Commission on Harrison Square was the items discussed at "executive sessions" - and then the illegal authorization to pay for the properties prior to Plan Commission and Common Council approval as required by the applicable Indiana Code.

My hope is that your group will address this issue also. I have researched this and have facts to back up questions as to the legality of some of these actions. What it comes down to is: "Who do groups like this department and this commission answer to? Who is the watchdog?"

I sure hope Public 1 can fill this role. John B. Kalb