There was an ongoing investigation. Mustn’t jeopardize an ongoing investigation, you know.
You let reporters or members of the public (other than a personal injury lawyer) into a fire hall where county and township and state officials and a Congressman’s staffer are talking about house explosions, and that could just make it impossible to find out what caused those houses to explode.
Although, last I heard, the sheriff has told the public that methane can migrate, and can seep into basements through cracks in the walls or floor or through drains. And this is not good, because gas can accumulate until something ignites it.
Wo! They were able to determine that in the course of the top-secret, confidential investigation they conducted behind closed doors the other night? Whoever those sources were, who were talking about those laws of physics that were being investigated so discreetly the other night, likely they would not have felt comfortable speaking about such scientific principles if there have been press/public present at the meeting.
That’s another common reason for barring press and public from meetings of government officials or agency personnel. Having those outsiders present for meetings of government and agency insiders has this inhibiting effect. Or so they tell us; we have to take their word for it, since we can’t be present to see how eloquent they are when accorded the privacy they yearn for.
A couple years ago I had occasion to see people drawn from several agencies, and some elected officials, develop expedient laryngitis upon learning that a person in attendance is also a member of the Fourth Estate (although not there as a reporter). You’d have thought the attendee was a member of the Fifth Column! A tough correctional type declared that he would not be able to speak freely. Not that he had seemed to be suffering from logorrhea before discovering that the assembly included a modern day gorgon, the scourge of government agencies, a member of the press.
Had a reporter and photographer or hyphenated photo-journalist (one of the most dangerous of the scrivening class) penetrated the defenses of the assortment of officials and public service persons present at the fire hall meeting, it might have resulted in allowing sneaky gasses to continue skulking about underground, and emerging in that furtive, odorless way, without being suspected or identified and apprehended.
Very seldom would anything said in such a gathering jeopardize an actual investigation in any way. But since there was such an assortment of persons who were in that particular convocation, and since it probably was not known how many of them carried and used cells, and since we can’t possibly count on all of them remaining adamantly silent concerning everything said in the meeting, the suggestion that the secrecy surrounding it related to protection of the integrity of an investigation is nothing short of laughable. In fact, I heard derisive laughter about it from several quarters in the next few days.
Convenience. Doing what comes naturally. “We see each other all the time, so it’s just natural to talk shop.” Is that a good reason to operate in the shadows rather than the Sunshine? No, not if the public servant wants to claim to be conscientious and law abiding. The oath of office did touch on obeying laws, didn’t it? Or was that part followed by some “exceptions” such as “unless it is inconvenient” or “except when I am feeling shy, modest or easily embarrassed”?
Those who dislike being observed or heard or reported on while doing their work should not seek public office. They are better suited to jobs in the private sector, or in espionage.
Then there’s this popular reason for disdaining the public right to know: “Because we CAN.” Sometimes that’s based on a loophole or the pretense of thinking there is one; sometimes it’s based on an actual exception.
In the recent colloquy of assorted officials and agency personnel and others deemed okay to include, there was the heavily worn and shabby but serviceable notion that this was a conference.
“Conference. Any training program or seminar, or any session arranged by State or Federal agencies for local agencies, organized and conducted for the sole purpose of providing information to agency members on matters directly related to their official responsibilities.”
Would that Sunshine Law definition apply to the closed event in question? Arranged by whom? Informative, perhaps, but are we sure there was a direct relationship to the duties of local officials? Has there been official action by those officials, since then, based on that “conference”?
And was there deliberation? "Deliberation. The discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision.” If there was, that was supposed to be done in public. “Deliberation of agency business may not occur at a conference.”
Here’s the part of the Sunshine Act so little noticed by those who invoke the exceptions: “Nothing in this section or section 707 (relating to exceptions to open meetings) shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public, nor shall any executive session be used as a subterfuge to defeat the purposes of section 704 (relating to open meetings).”
If that is hard to grasp, let me offer this: Although there are ways of evading the intent of the Sunshine Act, it does not follow that honorable officials should or must use those ways. Always they are ALLOWED to operate in public view, except when doing so would violate the rights of individuals, or labor law, or would harm the enterprise in a definable, specific way. And it is in the public interest that they operate in public view.