Note to public officials: Open is always better

Too often, people make things needlessly complicated.

That's especially true of public officials when it comes to open meetingsand records laws. Keep it simple; keep public business out in the open. Fewcomplain about a public body being too forthcoming.

The latest case in point was Bluffton Town Council¹s dinner meeting with twotown manager candidates. There was no good reason for Bluffton Town Councilto try to keep the public away. What happened last Friday night bears thatout. When a reporter and a few members of the public showed up at Myrtle¹srestaurant, they eventually were invited in, met the out-of-town candidateand sat in on the discussions for a while. (The second candidate present wasMarc Orlando, Bluffton¹s assistant town manager for planning. A thirdcandidate was unable to attend.)

The state¹s Freedom of Information Act is clear that meetings must be opento the public when a majority of council is present to discuss matters overwhich they have supervision, control or advisory power.

The law also states that "no chance meeting, social meeting or electroniccommunication may be used in circumvention of the spirit of requirements ofthe law, which requires that ³public business be performed in an open andpublic manner."The dinner meeting was town business, "social setting" or no. It was a partof the town manager selection process. A majority of council was present.The town paid $515.16 for dinner. There¹s little doubt candidates were beingassessed during the evening.

Mayor Lisa Sulka said before the meeting that the council would not be in"interview mode," although the interview committee, including town clerkSandra Lunceford, assistant town manager for finance Shirley Freeman andhuman resources administrator Jessie Hershey were expected to attend.

Councilman Fred Hamilton Jr. described it as a chance to get to know thecandidates before their formal interviews.

"We want to see them how they are ‹ not like the press is recording them."

Here's an idea: Public officials should be "how they are" whether the publicis there or not. The public's presence should make little difference in whatthey say or do.

Bluffton should have followed the example set by Beaufort County Councilwhen it interviewed candidates for the county manager's job in 2003.

The candidates interviewed with council members, then went to a reception,where interested members of the public could meet them, ask questions andtell them their concerns.

That's a forum that would have better served Bluffton Town Council. The townmanager is a main point of contact with the public. A public reception wouldhave allowed the council to gauge how the candidates comport themselves inthat role.

Of course, they would have been on their best behavior. But it¹s safe toassume the two candidates at dinner last week were on their best behavior,too.

Keep it simple; keep it open. Everyone¹s better off — the public and thecouncil. And if it's all innocent, what difference does it make?