Openness would benefit group, public discourse

If civic-minded people want to get together to study local issues and come up with thoughtful input on public policy, good for them.

The invitation-only Greater Island Council of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton has been meeting regularly for two decades now, hoping to shape the area's future.

Obviously, a private group can meet in private to discuss public issues. Where the group raises eyebrows is its insistence on secrecy even when meeting with public officials. People are generally uncomfortable -- as they should be -- when public officials go behind closed doors to discuss public matters.

The onus is on public officials to keep out in the open their own deliberations and reasoning for decisions they make on the public's behalf. Officials who have qualms about the way the Greater Island Council operates shouldn't attend the meetings or count themselves among its members.

But if the discourse is a good as the group describes, then we would all benefit from hearing it and learning what they learn. The council has committees and subcommittees to address public safety, education, transportation, recreation, workforce development, government policy, environmental issues, and cultural and social diversity. Certainly, those issues affect us all.

On occasion, the group has offered up special reports or taken positions on specific issues, such as a countywide sales tax to pay for road projects.

But part of weighing any group's message or recommendation is understanding who they are and what they are about. Simply releasing a membership list or opening up meetings to those interested when a public official addresses the group would help with that.

Otherwise, what's the point of taking positions on public policy? The group diminishes its ability to influence beyond its limited 100-member circle without the kind of openness they seem reluctant to offer.

Ward Kirby, the council's chairman, says, "It's not a secret society, but the idea when it was created was you can accomplish a lot more below the radar. ... The council can bring politicians in and get down and dirty to understand what the issues are and discuss solutions."

Politicians should not be afraid to have an honest, open discussion about issues anywhere, anytime. (Yes, this might be a too rosy view of the political world, but we can always hope. And we'll balance that with a more cynical take on how the group gains access to high-level officials: Hilton Head Island is a redoubt of well-heeled political donors.)

It is easier to push a particular agenda -- for both politicians and those meeting with them -- "below the radar." But it's not very conducive to convincing the general public of the rightness of your position.

That leans more toward lobbying than leadership.