Comments on: Monthly Milestone: A Different Beast it's like being there Tue, 16 Sep 2014 04:56:38 +0000 hourly 1 By: Conan Smith Conan Smith Sat, 04 Jun 2011 18:42:56 +0000 Mary, I deeply appreciate the Chronicle consistently challenging all of us to think critically about the extent and value of public access to the governmental decision-making process. It is an extraordinarily complex environment, especially now with the diverse communications technologies that can be employed to engage and inform the public about their governments’ actions. The Chronicle is a rare beast, however, in that its journalists AND its readers nearly always prioritize civil discourse even in the face of ardent disagreements. It is always a pleasure, then, to read your honest and thoughtful missives and the responses to them.

In that spirit, I want to share a few thoughts about government transparency and public discourse.

The letter of the law in the Open Meetings Act provides the most basic and fundamental protection of the public interest in a representative democracy: decisions (i.e. the votes that advance an action) are made in public with electors able to hold officials accountable for their individual votes. Our Freedom of Information Act provides a complementary basic protection in ensuring that the information generated by the government that informs those decisions or is useful in evaluating them is accessible as well to the public. These foundations are necessary but obviously insufficient parameters for public engagement in government decisions.

The question that creates the most tension in government-public discourse is the extent to which the muddier side of the decision-making process should be public. On one extreme you have citizens who would have even policy conversations between individual elected officials subject to public scrutiny, while on the other (as in the UM Regents’ case above) you have policy makers who feel only the recording of the vote is necessary.

Neither extreme creates an environment for making good public policy. At the crux of the matter is the fact that all of our elected officials are human beings, as subject to the same passions, fears, discontents, failings and emotional needs as anyone else. Complicating the situation is the rabidity with which some people confront politicians that they disagree with. Equally challenging is the limited space or attention given by many in the media to complex issues and decisions. In the face of either constraint, government officials are often quickly vilified or celebrated for the decision rather than appreciated for being thoughtful and deliberate.

In a representative democracy, we trust our leaders to evaluate proposals holistically, understanding not only the immediate impact of a decision but the tangential ramifications on other aspects of the political system and process as well. This introduces an array of issues — emotional, interpersonal, political, strategic — some of which, we might have the desire to know, but simply do not have the right to know, such as what personal life experiences might guide my actions. As the public we need enough information to judge the appropriateness of a vote; as public officials, we need enough trust to not have to share every detail of our individual decision-making processes.

If we want more open and accessible dialogue among our leaders regarding issues, we must be able to publicly afford them the benefit of the doubt that they are approaching a decision with reason and good intentions. Policy makers, on the other hand, should understand that that trust is not forthcoming when deliberations are unnecessarily secretive.

You, Mary, mention that the reporter has a responsibility of “developing a deep understanding of what’s being discussed around the board or council table, and in providing accurate context and background information so that readers can make sense of it.” I’d argue that this is a good benchmark for the public and for policy makers as well. I don’t need to share with you the emotional angst I feel about a given vote, but I do owe you a clear rationale for decision I ultimately make. I would hope, too, that the public ultimately accepts some occasional simple and vague answers, understanding that not every decision is driven by data — “I felt it was the right thing to do” is sometimes the very real and honest answer when information is inconclusive or long-term ramifications are unclear.

By: Vivienne Armentrout Vivienne Armentrout Fri, 03 Jun 2011 10:21:53 +0000 J.B. Newman’s reasons for voting against AADL board meetings being televised put the onus on the public to ask for transparency, rather than providing leadership from the board to provide it. She “doesn’t know how many Ann Arborites use CTN” and there has never been a “citizen request for our meetings to be televised”. This lack of understanding of how the public uses information sources is rather startling in a trustee for the Library, of all things.

I’ve been so pleased and impressed with the way the City of Ann Arbor now supplies videos of the Council discussions of each resolution. It gives a fuller understanding of each issue. The DDA also has meeting videos. Many of us (including me) who do not have cable make use of these avenues for getting a sense of the atmospherics and dynamics of discussions in public bodies. Minutes, especially action minutes, which are getting to be more frequently used, convey none of that.

So how do we convey that citizen request? Here is a modest suggestion: let the AADL conduct a survey of interest via its website. It would be nice if they would also issue a news release that they are doing so.

Thanks to the Chronicle for its coverage of the AADL. It has put a light on this otherwise inscrutable body.

By: Rod Johnson Rod Johnson Fri, 03 Jun 2011 01:26:30 +0000 I feel like I’m more provocative than I mean to be here. There are no black hats, just a general systemic drift that’s kind of an accumulation of a million decisions to play things safe. Society is so polarized and so confrontational (and litigious) these days that that might be wise, I dunno.

By: Rod Johnson Rod Johnson Fri, 03 Jun 2011 01:21:47 +0000 That’s why I said *since* the Duderstadt era. Sorry to be unclear. Jim Duderstadt may have had his faults, but he believed in free discussion.

I don’t necessarily think the President is the instigator either–UM is no different from many other schools in this respect. It’s the climate we live in.

By: Marvin Face Marvin Face Thu, 02 Jun 2011 22:50:10 +0000 Rod, I’ll agree with everything you said with one exception: Duderstadt was not the issue. The new control-freak, paranoid organization was put in place by one Lee Bollinger. I can remember almost to the day when things changed.

By: schoolsmuse schoolsmuse Thu, 02 Jun 2011 22:35:27 +0000 Jan, I’d encourage you to rethink the videotaping. I can’t possibly go to all the meetings I’d like to go to, and it never occurred to me to ask for the meetings to be taped until I saw it raised in the Chronicle. I do sometimes watch the other meetings that are available, and I think quite a few other people do too (city council, county commission, school board). In fact, even if they were only taped and then placed on the library web site, I think that would be great–with the county meetings, you can go to the spot that you’re interested in if you only want to watch part of a meeting.

Mary, You make a lot of great points here. One point that should be added is that the quality of the minutes that are provided to the public from many public meetings leaves a lot to be desired–both in terms of the timeliness with which they are made available, and the thoroughness/descriptions provided in the minutes. From both a public access point of view and an archival point of view, saying that “So and so moved to approve the allocation of $100,000 for x” and nothing else gives no sense of the substance of the discussion.

By: Jan Barney Newman Jan Barney Newman Thu, 02 Jun 2011 22:16:52 +0000 Mary,
I’m writing this from vacation in Central Europe,currently in Prague, late at night typing with my thumbs on my BlackBerry, so I apologize in advance for any typos. Your piece on public debate by governing boards of public entities, like all your posts in the Chronicle, is well written and thoughtful. Therefore I’d like to point out the reasons for my vote against video taping for Community Television the meetings of the Trustees of the Ann Arbor District Library. Our staff director of public outreach and information, Tim Grimes, expressed these at our May meeting:CTN would not be able to show the meeting live because of the conflict with the live coverage of the Ann Arbor City Council meeting at the same time. In addition, we seldom have visitors or much interest in our meetings, though our meetings are publicly posted, nor, other than Trustee Kaplan’s suggestion that we do so, has there ever been,to my knowedge, a citizen request for our meetings to be televised. As you suggest that may be because the meetings aren’t very interesting, but I contend that it’s more likely that matters relating to the library are available so many other ways more immediately and efficiently through meeting minutes posted on our frequently visited web site, our Director’s blogs, through direct responses from Library staff to questions called or emailed in, or, for heaven’s sake, in the coverage in the Chronicle, which has always been excellent. I don’t know how many Ann Arborites use CTN as their source of public information. My guess is relatively few, especially when there are many other sources on line more quicky available.
My vote against televising ADDL meetings was because I felt our commication with the public was strong through the various means we currently employ.
Best regards from the Czech Republic,

By: Rod Johnson Rod Johnson Thu, 02 Jun 2011 22:15:37 +0000 Bravo.

In the University’s case especially, the increasingly tight control over “messaging” is a disappointing thing to see. A university is supposed to be open, not the controlling, paranoid, hierarchical organization UM has been growing into since the Duderstadt era.