Death by Committee

The government that governs best may indeed govern least, as the old adage goes; but the government that truly serves the people governs in the open, in plain view, in the brilliant light of public scrutiny. The days of secret handshakes and back room deals are, more and more, becoming relegated to the past, a dying age of cigar-chomping political dinosaurs with tweed jackets tightly buttoned over protruding pork-barrel bellies.

Tuesday night’s vote by Fairfield County Council to do away with a committee system of government in favor of a public work session form is a victory for open government advocates everywhere, and Council should be congratulated for their pursuit of transparency when it comes to doing the public’s business. To say that all committees are dens of shady dealings would be unfair, and it is foreseeable that situations may arise wherein the appointment of a committee is a useful, necessary and expedient way for the County to conduct pertinent business. While the County’s new bylaws take just such scenarios into consideration, they favor instead an open meeting of full council held in open session.

The argument that concerned members of the public are less likely to speak their minds before full Council than before a smaller meeting of two or three Council members on a committee may indeed have some merit, but stage fright is a poor rationale for holding meetings beyond the public eye. Moreover, the one shortage Fairfield County has never experienced is of citizens eager to speak their minds, and if the issue were pressing enough it is likely Council would find a line forming in the parking lot. And it is far easier for the public to attend and participate in a single work session every month rather than chase down a half dozen committee meetings scattered all over the calendar, scheduled at all hours of the day, just to find out what is going on in their own back yard.

Fairfield County’s move toward a work session system is a move toward increased public participation in the governing process, and it is a move that should be considered by the Blythewood Town government.

For far too long, Blythewood has used committees as de facto secret meetings – unpublicized meetings of a hand-picked subset, with no posted agendas, with no minutes or public record of their discussion, designed to circumnavigate public input. Their recommendations are then taken up by the full Council and voted on with little or no public discussion.

Committees, while not comprising a quorum, are still covered by the state’s open government laws (SCFOIA Section 30-4-20), something that appears to concern the Town of Blythewood not in the least. Committees can, when utilized properly, work and work well. Blythewood, however, has abused that system to the detriment of the public, while Fairfield County has put the potential for such abuses to rest once and for all.

Alchemists work behind the curtain. The Great and Powerful Oz works behind the curtain. Those elected to represent the public should not.