Jill Goldthwait’s April 14 column addressed legislators’ obligations under right-to-know statutes, especially respecting committee caucuses, where transparency obligations are routinely ignored. Closed caucuses are defended as sometimes essential to try out tentative ideas or to avoid “airing dirty linen” in public. Those of us with select board municipal service under our belts, however, have had to master the rules of conducting public business before the public eye save for clearly specified exceptions allowed by law (e.g., receiving legal counsel, addressing personnel issues, other privacy exceptions, property negotiations, etc., which must be specifically referenced as to type before excluding the public from the closed deliberation). In short, it is possible to conduct the public’s business in public. It just takes developing the conversational and deliberative skills to do so.
I have seen enough committee caucus practice to know it is being misused. It’s not just conducting public business beyond the eyes and ears of the public. It’s knowing who’s among the players. Not just committee members are allowed in committee caucuses. Why should any legislators other than the designated members of the committee (e.g. non-committee legislators or members of the party leadership) be allowed into a committee party caucus? Even more galling, however, is the fact that agency heads and selected lobbyists are sometimes invited into caucuses. That’s just unacceptable.
It won’t take much to end these abuses. Citizens can infiltrate themselves into the flow of legislators headed to caucus venues and, if confronted, politely explain that they’re not leaving until the public business is taken back to the committee room. There’s a small chance of personal consequences. Someone may seek to have the citizen removed, but armed with the transparency statute, removal is contestable on grounds that public citizens are, by their presence at the meeting, directly assuring the intent of the statute. It would make a great story (but not for the offending legislators), and other legislators and their leadership will get the idea that citizens are serious about the public business being conducted in public. The practice of closed caucuses will then die.