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Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

An Open Letter

Monday, November 5, 2001

Position statement: Open public access to city government

The framers of our Constitution intended for government to be responsive to the wishes, hopes and desires of the people. Indeed, the public expression of personal opinion on the issues and topics of the day is fundamental to the governmental process that was envisioned and then constitutionally guaranteed by the founders of this nation. However, citizens must first have an opportunity to form their opinions upon a knowledgeable basis, and then have ample opportunity to make known their options.

The Sikeston citizens generally lack knowledge and insight about municipal issues and actions. I believe that it is the obligation of elected and appointed government officials to make every effort to provide as much information as possible. Elected and appointed government officials must communicate that information, as fully as possible, to the citizens that they are elected and appointed to represent.

The Charter Commission is engaged in the development of a proposed and improved form of government that will guarantee broader representation from our community. It is critical that Sikeston's citizens have a broader understanding of how government works, the issues of the day, and the avenues available to municipal government to resolve the issues of the day. We must have a citizenry that is educated in the process of government and we must more fully welcome the citizens into the process of government.

I believe that we can and should do a better job of educating our citizens. The first step is to give our citizens the tools they need to help them form opinions, attend meetings, cast educated votes, run for office or seek appointment to a board or commission.

What "tools" are most important in education? Information and accessibility. We - the Charter Commission - have the ability to guarantee the availability of information and the access to that information by mandating it in the Charter that we are now creating.

I certainly applaud the steps that the City of Sikeston has taken recently. The development of an official city website complete with City Council agendas and minutes, and listings of the scheduled meeting dates of boards and commissions is laudable. As a Charter Commission member, I have appreciated the city's willingness and efforts to maintain a website for the Commission. I have noticed that the City Council agendas are now appearing with some regularity in our local newspaper, which is also a welcome development. These and other measures, however, should be standard operating procedure - not left to good intentions or chance. Therefore, I propose the following:

1. All agendas of public bodies - City Council, Board of Municipal Utilities Board and all other boards and commissions - should be submitted to all media outlets within the city limits of Sikeston seven days in advance of the meeting.

2. All agendas must be posted in City Hall, the Public Library, in the police and fire stations and on the appropriate city website.

3. Agendas should include a brief explanation of each agenda item, such as that which appears on election ballots.

4. Only publicly published agendas items may be addressed during the meetings. No amendments may be added to the agenda at the time of the meeting.

5. No meeting shall be called with fewer than seven days notice, except in an emergency, as defined in the Charter.

6. The minutes of public meetings should be published in "draft" form within 36 hours of the meeting. The minutes should be made available to the same media outlets as were the agendas, as well as appearing on the city's website.

7. All votes taken during all public meetings will be taken by roll call and will be recorded in the minutes by name and vote.

8. City employees (regardless of department or position within that department) and City Council members may serve only as non-voting staff liaisons to city boards and commissions. Only the lay, or appointed, citizen members of boards and commissions may vote.

9. Boards and commissions appointee candidates are to be made known to the public in advance of the meeting in which appointments are to be made.

10. Each City Council, board or commission meeting will have a formally agendized public/press comment and question session during the meeting. Comments by members of the public should be made a part of the minutes of that meeting and properly attributed to the person making the comment.

11. Meetings of public bodies will be scheduled at a "reasonably convenient time," as required by the Missouri Sunshine Law. "Reasonably convenient" should be interpreted to mean a meeting time that is convenient for members of the public, not just the members of that particular body.

12. All meetings of public bodies will take place in the City Council chambers and will be televised.

The benefits of mandating the above provisions should be obvious. In all cases, the goal of the recommended provisions is to increase or enhance the flow of information to the public. Some of the recommendations are currently being practiced. Some were practiced in the past and deserve to be resurrected.

There are those who may suggest that these provisions are more suitably enacted by ordinance, not by Charter provision. I refer you to Page 4 of the Introduction to the Missouri Municipal League, "A Model Charter for Missouri Cities." Under the heading of "Some Reflections on Charter Drafting," paragraph 1, (2) states that "the charter should include only the essential provisions necessary to effective and responsive municipal government; unnecessary detail and matters subject to relatively frequent change should be dealt with by ordinance where possible." I submit to you that there is nothing more important or essential to "effective and responsive municipal government" than to guarantee that local government is as open and accessible as possible, and that it not be subject to "relatively frequent change."

Charter provisions can be changed only by the electorate - not by the Council. I believe that this is a distinct advantage in ensuring that the interests of the citizenry are held at least as highly as interests in the convenience of our elected officials.

Paragraph 1 further states, "Some decisions about municipal government involve fundamental policy matters that should be decided by the people as a whole rather than their elected representatives on the council." Measures mandated to guarantee open and accessible government surely qualify as "fundamental policy." If these measures are part of the proposed Charter, the voters in Sikeston shall have a say in the matter of open and accessible government.

The Missouri Municipal League Guide also notes on Page 4 in Section (1) that among the charter provisions that are absolutely necessary are those "... that provide the basic ground rules necessary to operate as a governmental entity." What could be more important than leveling the playing field between our citizens, their elected officials and the boards and commissions that make recommendations to the council?

Section (2) of the Missouri Municipal League Guide, in answer to the question, "What provisions are very desirable in order to prevent abuse, ease difficult situations ...." responds that ... legislative proceedings, (seeks) to prevent abuse and to insure that interested and affected citizens have an opportunity to make an input prior to council action." The measures that I recommend to you certainly support those objectives. In fact, that statement is the essence of my position.

It is absolutely crucial that at this juncture in Sikeston's history that we do whatever is possible to educate our citizens about the business of government, and to make our government as open and accessible as possible. It is true that you can "bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." I am simply proposing that the body of water that we bring that proverbial horse is to a broad trough, not a dripping faucet.

We, the Charter Commission, are in a unique position to maximize the opportunities for the people of Sikeston to participate, and be heard. It is our responsibility to do so.

Troy Wilson, member

Charter Commission