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Secret deals made by elected officials aren’t enforceable, and they won’t stay secret.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Some government officials scurry behind closed doors when possible to avoid questions from pesky constituents. But elected representatives who stray beyond the appropriate bounds of a closed meeting and attempt to make policy decisions often discover that secrecy can backfire.
Bedford County residents can’t know which of their leaders said what, but any off-the-books commitments made on funding for a new middle school aren’t worth a plugged nickel today.
Most officials remember a huddle involving supervisors and school board members several years ago during early talks on whether the city of Bedford would revert to a town and be absorbed into the county. Supervisor Annie Pollard maintains that the group agreed to use extra state education aid received as a result of the reversion for capital projects, with a new middle school as the top priority.
“I admit that it was in a closed session meeting, but the public needs to know that we did have that agreement,” she said Monday.
The public does need to know, at the time commitments are being made on their behalf. Participants say the meeting was closed because of pending negotiations so they could consult with their attorney, but the version of events described by Pollard suggests it may have strayed from state open meeting rules.
There are no minutes to provide clarity. School Board Chairman Gary Hostutler said he does not remember such a deal. His board wants to split the $6 million in extra state money each year between capital and operational expenses. Supervisor Chairman Steve Arrington said supervisors have long favored earmarking all for capital, but he doesn’t believe there was a vote during the joint meeting Pollard referenced.
The final reversion agreement states that the county will build a new middle school, but offers no details about the state aid.
Much has changed over the past several years. There are new members on both boards. The economy and state budget cuts have eaten into county and school budgets. The amount of extra state aid has doubled from early estimates. That money won’t last indefinitely, and it’s appropriate to discuss whether it should be used for ongoing expenses. But that conversation should be in public, followed by a binding vote so there is no confusion.
Neither board has an unblemished record on sunshine laws, but now is a good time to adopt a new attitude of openness.
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