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“All meetings of public bodies, as defined hereinafter, shall be held at specified times and places which are convenient to the public and shall be open to the public, except as hereinafter specifically provided.” — From the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
The Durant City Council hopes to solve the problem of marathon meetings by adding a briefing session prior to its regular meeting. The council had its first briefing session before its December meeting and the results are promising. But, the plan’s promise could carry some pitfalls if not handled carefully.
Anyone who has attended a Durant City Council meeting in the past year likely has noticed how long the meetings go. The council has dealt with some very important issues. Councilmembers are to be commended for their dedication in staying until each agenda item is dealt with, but five hours in the council chambers is just too much. There had been some talk of changing the schedule to meeting twice a month. The briefing plan seems to be a version of that.
According to City Manager Tim Rundel, city staff will be on hand to review agenda items with the council before the regular meeting. Councilmembers can ask questions and receive information on specific agenda items. In this way, the council can be prepared to take action during the official meeting. Rundel and Mayor Jerry Tomlinson both stressed that there would be no discussion or debate during the briefing. It is only a time for passing information.
That’s good as far as it goes, but it’s important to remember there is more to a public meeting than casting votes. It’s not enough to know only how a councilmember voted, the public needs to understand why a vote is cast. The discussion that occurs during a meeting is an important source of information for voters.
Rundel and Tomlinson both stressed that the briefing is open to the public, and that’s important. But it’s only as effective if the public is actually there.
The council held its first council staff briefing before its regular December meeting. According to Tomlinson, attendance was sparse. This is likely because it was the first briefing, and few realized it was happening. The city properly posted the meeting, but we are creatures of habit and the briefing is something new. Still, we have a responsibility to monitor the council just as the council has a responsibility to work in the sunlight.
Sometimes the line dividing discussion and debate is fine indeed. If a councilmember has a question about an item, the briefing is an appropriate forum. But, when it comes to speaking for or against a proposition, that must be done on the record during a regular meeting. That is when leaders go on the record. The public meeting is a hallmark of our free society.
The public’s right to know is foundational to our ability to govern ourselves. A fully informed electorate is only possible when government works in the light of day and that happens during a regularly called meeting.
The briefing plan is a good one, but it must be watched closely.