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Keeping meetings open

Why is it that so many government officials cannot seem to get it through their heads that the public’s business ought to be done in public if at all possible?

Retreating behind a closed door – officials prefer the euphemism “executive session” – is never desirable. When closed meetings are held to talk about controversial matters, the natural question is: What are they trying to hide?

Last week, St. Clairsville City Council members met with representatives of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to talk about needed improvements and repairs to the municipal water system. Some city officials want to deal with that by selling the system to a private company, Aqua Ohio.

OEPA Southeast District Chief Craig Butler made it clear Wednesday that his agency is interested only in seeing the repairs and upgrades made, not whether the system is sold. “That’s a decision of the city,” he emphasized.

Whether to go into a closed session also was not up to Butler. Council members voted to do so to “discuss matters pertaining to federal and state law that need to be held in confidence.” St. Clairsville residents will just have to take council’s word for that.

Two councilmen, Perry Basile and Mike Smith, voted against the closed meeting. They were outvoted by council members Mark Bukmir, Linda Jordan, Jim Velas and council President Pro Tempore Frank Sabatino.

It may have been acceptable for council to talk privately about one matter – filling the vacancy on council created when former Councilman Tim Porter resigned. But we can think of no good reason why the discussion with OEPA representatives had to be in secret.

Smith and Basile also suggested that a professional engineer, Jeff Vaughn, be permitted to attend the closed-door discussion. They explained Vaughn’s expertise might be valuable.

Again, Basile and Smith were voted down by the other four.

After the private gathering ended, city Safety and Service Director Jim Zucal, who favors selling the water system, said it was important for council members to hear about required work directly from the OEPA. “These are matters that are safety and health concerns for our constituents,” he commented.

Apparently, discussions of health and safety concerns “need to be held in confidence.”

Council members who voted in favor of the secret meeting may have hoped to reduce controversy over the water system.

If so, they were wrong. Closed-door meetings result in more, not less, suspicion among members of the public who wonder precisely what it was they were not supposed to know about.

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