Posted by Bob Fitrakis on November 2nd, 2010
October 31, 2010
The Daily Monopoly, Columbus Dispatch, that masquerades as a newspaper, ran the following subhead in its editorial in support of Issue 12: “City charter change would provide public with more information.”
If you vote “yes” on Issue 12 this November 2, you will be voting to allow Council to hold closed meetings when discussing certain issues. This would include personnel matters, property purchase, litigation, collective bargaining, and security matters.
So, after nearly a hundred years of open City Council meetings mandated by the Columbus City Charter, we’re now being told that we will get “more information” and “accountability” by closing Council’s chamber doors to the public.
Let’s look at the reasons Council is proposing to close their meetings. First, following Tuesday’s election, the Council will be replacing Charleta Tavares who will doubtlessly be elected to the state Senate. Council claims it needs go behind closed doors for the purpose of vetting potential candidates who seek the open seat.
The Dispatch, whose editorial board has been doing PR for the pro-Issue 12 group, the so-called Columbus Citizens for Good Government, claimed that “Many good candidates for public jobs would refuse to apply if their interviews and Council discussions about them had to be public.”
The public interviewing of candidates has a long and honorable tradition in the United States. The U.S. Senate routinely interrogates cabinet and other high-level appointments of the President publicly. This tradition has served the public well. In Columbus in the past, the Council has attempted to ignore this law and pick candidates in closed meetings.
I know. In both 1991 and 1993, I was on the short list for Columbus City Council. I met with the then-Council President in a private meeting. Perhaps the Council President didn’t want the public to hear the questions I was asked, such as how much money I could raise for the campaign and whether or not I would continue to call myself a progressive, since it was a “leftist” term.
The City Attorney ruled that the last two City Council appointments violated the City Charter because they were done privately. It embarrassed City Council President Michael Mentel when he was forced to accept the resignation of the newly-anointed Council members, and then interview them in public and re-appoint them.
Instead of taking a training class in interviewing techniques and realizing that potential public officials should learn how to speak in public, Mentel has responded by attempting to change the City Charter to hide the interview process from the public.
In the last decade and half, every City Council member was appointed first, and elected later. This bizarre, undemocratic ritual, put forth by the one-party Democratic system that has held either a 6-1 or 7-0 majority throughout that period, is designed to allow Council to choose each incoming member and the Democratic appointees to run with the unfair advantage of incumbency.
Second, the Dispatch editorial made the absurd argument that: “A public body can’t strike a good deal to buy a piece of land or establish a strategy for a lawsuit if the details of the position must be reached in public view.”
City real estate deals are negotiated by the City’s Development Department and the Mayor. All Council does is approve the final deal. Maybe the Dispatch should read its own newspaper to understand this basic concept. The October 24 paper reported the following: “City Council President Michael C. Mentel, an early proponent of moving the casino out of the Arena District, said Penn National hasn’t shared its request with him. The Coleman administration is handing talks for the city, so he said. He’ll wait for an agreement to emerge.”
Thus, Mentel openly admits that Council has nothing to do with negotiating property buys under Columbus’ strong mayor system of government. Even if Council did negotiate real estate transactions, they need not worry about getting a better deal because they can just take the property they need at fair market value. Apparently the Dispatch has never heard of the term “eminent domain,” a practice Council may use at any time for the taking of public property.
The real reason Mentel wants to go behind closed doors is to talk about giving rich corporate entities and major donors tax breaks or tax increment financing that allows a private entity to keep the tax dollars they pay for improving their property. It is much easier to come up with schemes to give away subsidies in the form of infrastructure development or tax breaks if the pesky public is not around.
On the question of litigation, again, let’s start with the obvious. City Council only approves the final deal or expenditure, which we all should want to be publicly debated. It is again the executive branch of City government, through the City Attorney, that negotiates these settlements.
Like litigation, labor negotiations are handled by the Mayor and his representatives. Again, all Council is empowered to do is to publicly debate the prudence of the resulting expenditures.
Finally, the notion that City Council needs to retire to executive session for “homeland security” is laughable. The City has a Public Safety Director and a Chief of Police, and various joint task forces with other security and police agencies. The last thing that will happen in the case of an actual emergency will be calling of parttime City Council people into an emergency session. Both federal and state emergency management agencies working with fulltime professional public safety appointees of the Mayor will handle the issue.
We need Council to make sure, after the fact, that our rights aren’t being violated. We don’t need them to be secretly briefed and compromised under some local notion of “homeland security.”
Take a look at who’s putting up the money to bankroll the Columbus Citizens for Good Government–the usual group of unnatural citizens known as wealthy corporations. Ask yourself why the Limited Brand was the biggest reported donor of $10,000 for closed Council meetings, a company that has benefited by the destruction of the City Center mall and massive public welfare checks to help increase its riches.
Nationwide is on the Council’s side, coughing up $5000, no doubt to ensure its status as one of the recipients of tax breaks that allowed them to develop the area around its headquarters downtown while shafting the Columbus Public School district.
When the Dispatch reported the major donors to the Columbus Citizens for Good Government, the names missing were those of real citizens. Issue 12 is being pushed by those “legal fictions” we call corporations and the politicians they control as a wholly-owned subsidy–like Mike Mentel.
The only way they can get their closed meetings approved is to word their ballot language in such a way that convinces voters that voting “yes” would lead to open meetings. NBC4 asked six citizens what the wording meant for Issue 12. Three felt if you voted “yes” you kept Council meetings open. The other three couldn’t comprehend what the intentionally incomprehensible language meant.
The ballot language reads: “Shall Section 8 of the charter of the city of Columbus be amended to permit council or its committees to convene in the same manner as the general law of Ohio pertaining to open meetings of public bodies when discussing issues such as personnel matters, purchase of property, litigation, collective bargaining, and security matters, as recommended by the Charter Review Committee.”
“Yes,” however, means closed meetings. You have to vote “no” on Issue 12 to keep Council meetings open.
What the wording doesn’t tell us is that the City of Columbus has a higher standard of transparency than the minimum standard required under Ohio law. This is due mostly to the fact that many Ohio municipalities are weak mayoral systems where the City Council picks the Mayor or a Council member serves as Mayor. Under these types of charters, Council actually buys property, settle lawsuits, and negotiate with employees. This has nothing to do with how the City of Columbus conducts business.
Columbus’ long legacy of transparency is at stake on Election Day. Contrary to what the Dispatch and their corporate allies say, closed meetings will not provide the public “more information.” They will provide less, and it will be an embracing of big city backroom dealing that inevitably will lead to widespread corruption.
Bob Fitrakis is a former candidate for Columbus City Council and a Professor of Political Science at Columbus State Community College.