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Last week’s illegal meeting of a health board committee, however brief, reeks of an attempt to avoid obeying state statutes that govern open meetings.
Those involved can contend that’s not true, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
First, the director told this newspaper point blank nearly a month ago that it would not be allowed to attend meetings of this committee.
The publisher of this newspaper responded and told the director that the law requires the committee to meet in public. In an effort to assist, he even provided examples of how similar committees put together by county and city government operate within the boundaries of the law.
Others familiar with open meetings statutes told him the exact same thing, yet instead of verifying that advice with an attorney, the director went to a state Health and Family Services Cabinet official and got was he was after: tacit permission to conduct a secret meeting.
If that sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Several years ago the director’s predecessor bypassed legal council available from the county attorney and relied instead on the advice of a state cabinet official who green-lighted the purchase of $60,000 worth of office furniture, a clear violation of state procurement laws.
Why did neither director seek the advice of County Attorney Bobbi Jo Lewis? Because Lewis wouldn’t have given them the answer they were looking for, that’s why.
The second piece evidence is the director and chairman’s contention that they received an e-mail regarding a state attorney general’s opinion “at the last minute” which let them know that the meeting they scheduled for last Thursday should be open to the public.
The chairman said he read the e-mail at 5:45 p.m., a half hour before the meeting was to begin.
Yet the meeting, by the director’s own admission, did begin despite the AG’s opinion and progressed to the point where the director was passing out draft budget documents.
It was at that point that members of the committee, realizing no public notification had been made, handed those documents back to the director and halted the meeting.
By their own admission they knew ahead of time that the committee couldn’t legally meet, yet forged ahead committee members objected and left.
Why anyone associated with this committee would want to discuss the public’s business in secret is a mystery. Instead of seeking ways to do things in secret, why not do the opposite and err on the side of transparency?
After all, they aren’t discussing spending their own money, they’re discussing money taken away from those who earned it, and even considering having those discussions in secret is nothing short of an outrage.
There’s no question that those entrusted with spending public money often find discussing tax increases uncomfortable, even when raising taxes is absolutely necessary.
Yes, the director and chairman are relative newcomers to their positions, and expecting them to know state statutes by verse is unrealistic. But the director has more than enough legal resources at his disposal to make informed decisions, and the chairman, a retired public educator, sat through many a site-based council meeting, all of which were subject to the same open meeting laws that apply to the board of health.
Yes, those who serve on the health board are unpaid volunteers, including the chairman, who were pressed into service and responsible for making major financial decisions that affect the public and those employed at the health department.
Regardless the level of their discomfort, they are bound by law to have those discussions in front of the people whose money is being spent.
If unpaid volunteers don’t agree or find doing so too uncomfortable, they are welcome to return to their private lives and leave the responsibility to those who will follow the law.
If the director doesn’t agree, he should find work in the private sector where only he and those who pay him need to worry how money is being spent.