During an otherwise uneventful village council meeting Monday, an interesting debate on the public’s right to know erupted over what is typically a fairly routine matter. Commissioners were asked to decide the fate of 13 audio recordings that document discussions held behind closed doors. Given the dates of those meetings – May 2005 through September 2006 – the voices on those tapes are presumably mulling such things as the YMCA project, lawsuits and various personnel matters.
Under state law, the purpose of the tapes is to enable a judge to review the meetings for violations of the Open Meetings Act. This would only happen if someone petitions the court on the belief that a violation may have occurred.
Following this reading of the law, as Mayor Anthony Calderone argued, is accurate. Lawmakers were clear in their limited reasons for mandating such recordings. Of course, Springfield is not a bastion of transparency and there are several other compelling reasons to hang on to these tapes.
Commissioner Marty Tellalian was the lone holdout in the 4-1 vote to destroy the recordings, but his case was stronger than the one given by the majority. We’ve not heard the tapes (because they’ve not been made available to the public), but Tellalian said there are a handful of outstanding issues covered in those private discussions. The YMCA project was expressly mentioned several times. As Tellalian said, it makes no sense to erase any documentation that may help see a pending matter to its conclusion.
Tellalian also argued, as he has in the past, that the council’s written account of its meetings is painfully vague. We agree. Ever since the 2007 debacle of the “phantom appraisal” used to reach a selling price with the YMCA, the mayor has ordered the village clerk to whittle the minutes down to little more than a footnote. The essence of the council’s discussions is lost, giving future generations nothing to grab hold of should there be a dispute over the intent or spirit of decisions made today.
Other arguments used to justify the destruction of the tapes include Commissioner Rory Hoskins’ concern that the public won’t be able to stomach the profanity that adults use when they’re frustrated. He said, too, that it might be embarrassing for those involved to hear their comments repeated publicly.
Calderone said “most likely” a vengeful public would manipulate the recording into sound bites for “political purposes.”
The mayor challenged Tellalian to describe what good could possibly come from hearing elected officials curse at one another behind closed doors. The answer to that question, mayor, cannot be provided by Tellalian or any other member of the council. Only the public, with a complete understanding of how its elected officials are governing, can determine the value of those comments.