NTF worksheet: sunshine1.doc. 7-16.
NEBRASKA TAXPAYERS FOR FREEDOM WORKSHEET:
LET THE SUN SHINE IN.
BACKGROUND. One political pundit accurately noted that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Many government subdivisions need a strong dose of disinfectant. They make it very difficult, either purposely or unintentionally, for the taxpaying public to make itself heard in the quest to reform government taxing, spending, and regulation. Now, all around the country, conservative and liberal groups alike are pressing forward with initiatives to make government subdivisions and their elected officials and staff more responsive and accountable to the public, their operations more transparent and understandable. We strive to expose corruption within government and increase public trust through transparency initiatives. Such accentuates the importance of open government and freedom of information.
DEFINITION. Sunshine laws or ordinances require openness in government. They make meetings, records, votes, deliberations and other official actions available for public observation, participation, and inspection. They also require government meetings held with sufficient advance notice and at times and places that are convenient and accessible to the public, except for emergency meetings. Legal proceedings, labor negotiations, and personnel matters are exceptions to open records and open meetings laws in Nebraska. Every citizen of our state may request public records in Nebraska. The law explicitly states, “All citizens of this state, and all other persons interested in the examination of the public records … are hereby fully empowered and authorized to examine the same.” State law does not require a statement of purpose and places no restrictions on use of records. Our law allows 4 business days for compliance with a records request.
THE PROBLEMS. Our taxpayer organization is promoting several initiatives to local governments because of current obstacles. Every taxing authority conducts meetings with an agenda available ahead of a meeting. However, sometimes it is very difficult to obtain an advance agenda. A government entity can refuse to release an agenda until shortly before a meeting, make written agendas difficult to obtain, or make them available only at a meeting. In such instances, it is extremely difficult for a taxpayer to formulate a speech, letter, email, or phone call about a concern to an individual officeholder, board, or commission on such short notice. In other instances, officials make an agenda so skimpy that it is impossible to understand what specific business a council or commission will discuss. Oftentimes, government entities use this slyness to hide a controversial issue from the public. In some cases, there is no public comment item on the agenda, an opportunity for the public to speak on an issue that may not appear germane to agenda items. Taxing authorities guilty of this absence usually intentionally do it in order to stop the public from speaking on an issue that might embarrass or chastise them. Another ruse is to limit the number of speakers on a topic. Local governments sometimes do such in order to limit the number of critical speakers, even though each may have a different testimony. Officials can purposely hold a meeting at which a volatile topic may attract a huge crowd in a room much too small to hold such crowd. This trick restricts the number of irate citizens wishing to attend and comment. Another sly trick is to remove an agenda item shortly before a meeting in order to stop critics from speaking on it. Voting sometimes is hard to track. Voting orally and quickly on a several-member board makes it difficult for those in the back of a large room with bad acoustics to hear and difficult to transcribe. Records supposedly open to the public sometimes are tough to access. One bit of chicanery used by bureaucrats is to charge an exorbitant amount for photocopying each page, like $1-$2, thereby making it costly to examine public documents. Another trick is to confer confidentiality on documents that should not have that label. On occasion, bureaucrats simply will ignore a request for documents or declare that they cannot locate them. At worst, council members, commissioners, or entire board may greet appearing critics with hostility and verbal venom. They may violate the letter of the law and stubbornly refuse to comply. They wish to make your appearance so unpleasant that you will not return. A prime example is the Papio-Mo. River Natural Resources District Board. In especially pernicious examples, a public official may seek to “get dirt” on a critic and broadcast it to the media in order to silence a critic. Another impropriety is delaying for weeks the posting of meeting minutes. Officials do this purposely to delay critics examining the minutes for votes and statements. It is difficult enough to find taxpayers who will muster sufficient courage to face and speak to public officials. Breaking the law or acting unethically only contributes to citizen cynicism, distrust, and anger.
OUR INITIATIVES. When you attend a public hearing, particularly a budget hearing, always have your presentation prepared and practiced. Bring supporters. Act civilly, even if the elected officials ignore or view you with disdain. You have a right to speak. (See NTF outline on public speaking). Our Sunshine Initiatives are as follows:
The agenda: Insist on meeting agendas publicly available at least 4 days prior to a meeting, available in hard copy at the main office of a government subdivision and easily found on and downloaded from the Internet. Therefore, a citizen will have sufficient time to prepare and deliver a statement. Demand that each item on the agenda is clear and concise, so that readers can fully understand the item. Insist on a time for public comment, even if restricted to 3-5 minutes per speaker. Speakers may discuss a topic that may interest elected officials or one that they prefer to ignore. Officials cannot ignore criticism; it is part of their elected duties. Insist that all speakers have permission to speak on a topic, at least until a late hour like 10 PM. Citizens who have taken the time to research, analyze, and print out their comments deserve a hearing. Our initiative will require taxing authorities to provide sufficient space for an anticipated crowd, so that everyone who wishes to speak can speak or listen in the audience. One initiative will eliminate a board or commission suddenly removing an agenda item on which a number of citizens have prepared to speak. The item must remain on the agenda pending public comment. Another requirement would stipulate that a taxing authority must post votes immediately by video in the meeting room, so that everyone can visually see the votes.
Public records: Our initiative would require public bodies to charge only their cost when providing photocopied records to citizens. Another initiative would force public officials to provide records unless truly retained because of lawful confidentiality. If a bureaucrat refuses to acknowledge your inquiry twice, whether by phone, email, or mail, file a complaint with the office of Sec. of State in Lincoln. If a bureaucrat cannot locate a document you seek, remind him constantly and alert the news media.
Public speaking: When you speak before a council, board, or commission with your prepared statement and in compliance with the rules, you should expect common courtesy. If you incur ridicule or other ill-mannered behavior from one or more public officials, do not respond in kind. Show the audience and attending media that you can behave better than the public servants. Officials can make your appearance unpleasant, but they cannot throw you out. If they silence your right to speak, then you have recourse to file a complaint with the Sec. of State in Lincoln. However, if you decide that you do not wish to suffer future harassment, you have another option. Publicize their abhorrent behavior on social media all over the Internet, thereby plastering them with a huge amount of negative publicity.
TAKE ACTION NOW. Join with NE Taxpayers for Freedom to contact every local government council, board, or commission to pass our Sunshine Initiatives. Start by contacting your district elected official(s). Ask them to sponsor each of our initiatives and help pass them into law, ordinance, or rule. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of our Sunshine Initiatives and contact information for your local elected officials. Then join our NE Taxpayers for Freedom Sunshine Initiative.
Research, analysis, and documentation for this issue paper done by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom. This material copyrighted by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, with prior permission granted for its use by other groups in the NE Conservative Coalition Network. 7-16. C