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December 15, 2008 - Ray Hall (Archive)
There exists a widely held perception that public officials, elected and appointed, are of good character, honest, decent people motivated only by the highest ideals. The underlying premise being that public service is an unselfish sacrifice. Public officials themselves most often advance that premise; “I just want to give something back to the community,” or “I want to make difference,” or, “I want to make this a better place for our children and grandchildren.”

We are led to believe that a successful career in the public sector somehow requires great personal sacrifice including an idealized family life willingly sacrificed on the altar of public service. It could be that we are left with that image because America is one of the few places in the Western World where that concept is reinforced in early childhood. Even the youngest among us are taught to respect and pray for those in authority over us. Elected officials represent a cross-section of America, but it is that authority thing I find troubling.

Despite pronouncements to the contrary politics has become the common pathway to power in America whether it is membership on a school board or President of the United States. In a moment of vain and I suspect empty boasting Henry Kissinger once quipped that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

At the risk of offending the sensibilities of our ruling political class I was not surprised at the allegations of larceny leveled against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. After all, four of eight of his immediate predecessors have been imprisoned. Former Governor Ryan is still in jail. Public sector larceny occurs more frequently than we would suppose whether it is pilfering parking meter receipts or peddling influence.

Jamestown had a former City Treasurer charged with emptying the till and more than one local school official has been caught red handed. In New York it is not uncommon to hear that a Justice of the Peace has been removed from office for commingling funds. But, it is this sort of elected criminal activity that I least fear; invariably the culprits are almost always caught and the bigger they are the harder they fall.

Look at Randy “Duke” Cunningham who is doing time in Federal Prison for taking bribes for guiding government contracts to a defense contractor. “Duke” Cunningham whose story was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the block buster movie TOP GUN was tripped up because a reporter discovered he was living in a home above the pay grade of a lowly Congressman. Duke stood before microphones sobbing and appearing every bit repentant. In 2001 four term Governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards was given a ten year sentence for racketeering, but congratulated the prosecutor and acknowledged to the press if you fish without a license long enough you’ll eventually get caught. Do names like Governor Eliot Spitzer from New York and Senator Ted Stevens from Alaska come to mind?

No, it isn’t the high crimes that I most fear, rather it is the crime that occurs with great frequency and before our very eyes across New York State nearly everyday. The crime of closed government—improper use and abuse of the “Executive Session.” Improper use of the closed meeting is a crime in New York, but it is a crime without a punishment. Our elected state legislature has devised a method too cute by half to circumvent the public good knowing full well that the statute declaring open meetings cannot be enforced. There are really only a few matters that should be discussed behind closed doors; an on going police investigation, or the imminent sale or purchase of a property where such revelation would affect the price.

Attend any public meeting of any public body and you will hear a motion to enter into “Executive Session” to discuss a personnel matter, or litigation or the most brazen lie of all—“potential litigation.” In other states, Florida for instance, none of those items can be taken behind closed doors or even discussed by officials outside a public meeting. Violators can be removed from office.

Closed meetings remain an anathema to good government and not until our State Legislature puts some teeth into our open meetings law will change occur. Florida’s open meetings law is part of the State Constitution—maybe New York politicians could be moved by Florida’s example.

This newspaper has reported on the dangers of closed meetings; more recently reporting on the Board of Public Utilities and the proposed power plant and School Board discussions regarding filling the top job in the school district.

To be continued…..this is the first of two Blogs dealing with Open Meetings and what is hidden from local residents.


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Governor Rod Blagojevich--Illinois