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Publisher's voice: As budget looms, council must be more transparent

Posted 10/16/12

An interesting story was published recently in the York Daily Record. What caught my eye was an official change in procedure for interviews to select a York City Council member. Those meetings will be now be held in public, after the city’s …

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Publisher's voice: As budget looms, council must be more transparent

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York’s council president, Carol Hill-Evans, confirmed the four serving council members will conduct public interviews as they search for a replacement for a councilwoman who died last month. The council had planned to hold those interviews in closed, executive session meetings on the advice of the city solicitor’s office.

York’s actions toward transparency in government are to be commended. The truth is, they didn’t do it willingly.

Problems with the city council’s initial plan arose because the York Daily Record reported the Sunshine Act precludes executive sessions for “any meeting involving the appointment or selection of any person to fill a vacancy in any elected office.” Put simply, the Sunshine Act forbids closed-door talk to fill such a vacancy.

Middletown’s Borough Council did one better than York: It appointed two council members to vacancies in the past year without public interviews or discussion. Someone was nominated from the floor, and approved by the majority with no public interviews.

Sadly, the cost of challenging Sunshine Act violations stands as a real barrier to most citizens – and community newspapers – seeking to prevent governments from running roughshod over the public’s rights.

How much is democracy worth to Middletowners? Around the world people are losing their lives for liberty, but in our town, the council is betting it can bully voters into turning their backs on open government.

With the financial future of our borough up in the air, this is no time for the public to be shut out of budget deliberations. The public’s right to attend meetings and participate in an open dialog directly with elected officials – without the encumbrance or filter of a communications director – is vital to our democracy and critical to holding Middletown’s governing body accountable.

Council has set at least three meetings on its 2013 budget in October, according to the borough website. One was scheduled for Oct. 16, while two more are scheduled for Monday, Oct. 22 and Monday, Oct. 29.

With major budget decisions coming from the floor at council meetings since June without public deliberation among councilors – the defunding of the Middletown Public Library and closing of the borough’s emergency communications center – some citizens have grown suspicious of council’s openness regarding financial matters.

While council possesses the power to fashion budgets, the public has a right to know what happens with its finances and assets, including any financial consultant’s budget recommendations or deliberations regarding the study of the sale of any asset.

Our council should be safeguarding the public’s rights, but its track record has been anything but encouraging when such things as interviews for a new councilor are held outside the public’s view.