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Debates take place somewhere

Dixon resident Josie Whaley raised a good point during an April meeting of the Dixon City Council. All she hears during meetings are motions, seconds and quick votes.

"I still don't understand how there's no discussion," she told the board during public input. "You had to have discussed the topics somewhere to see where each other's at, or figure out what's going on."

Josie was on the right track.

It turns out the mayor and the four-member Dixon City Council talk a lot outside meetings – as long as they do so in groups of two – a way to avoid the Open Meetings Act requirement for openness.

In fact, this practice is formalized. Every Thursday, either two commissioners or the mayor and a commmissioner take part in meetings of the city's department directors. The public isn't allowed.

Given the Rita Crundwell scandal, the city desperately needs to regain the public's trust. Attorney-endorsed evasions of the Open Meetings Act probably won't help the city reach that goal.

The city, as I wrote in a recent column, must set a higher standard for openness, exceeding the requirements of sunshine laws, not simply meeting them. That's if it wants to get in the good graces of the public again.

In the aftermath of Crundwell, one of the most surprising results is the continued lack of vigorous debate about the city's future during council meetings. As Josie implied, those discussions apparently are happening somewhere else.

Let's be fair, though. Other governing bodies also avoid such debates.

The incentive is to present the positive and to avoid the negative.

Just look at the deal to reopen Sterling's downtown theater. The council approved it last December, lending $550,000 in taxpayers' money, after the public heard about the deal's advantages. In private, council members got news about the drawbacks. Who was left out? Their constituents – the folks paying the bills.

Some area school boards also can seem like closed societies. The Sterling school board schedules closed sessions the hour before its regular meetings. And sometimes it again closes the doors after its public meetings.

Not surprisingly, little discussion occurs during open sessions. Are the decisions already made?

The policies for the Sterling, Dixon and Rock Falls High School boards designate their board presidents as their official spokespersons. They follow these policies pretty closely, though Dixon members – who have their share of spirited debates – seem more independent-minded.

From my experience, Rock Falls board members typically don't return calls, including their spokesman, President Merle Gaulrapp. Member Tom Cushman, though, appeared to break ranks when he spoke with us for a recent story on school pensions. (I hope he didn't get in trouble with the others.)

The Sterling and Rock Falls High School boards have policies – probably written by a professional association – that require all communications to school board members to go through their superintendents. In the age of Facebook, why is such a rule still necessary?

No such rule exists in the Dixon schools, where people are welcome to directly communicate with their elected representatives.

All of these entities serve the people. They shouldn't forget that.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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