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Our View: Government in knots

The Union Editorial Board

At times, local governments perform Olympic-level acts of bureaucratic gymnastics to avoid the Brown Act.

That act, which requires governments in California to do their business in public, has a number of holes elected officials can dance through. And they do.

California’s Brown Act gives governments plenty of leeway that other states don’t enjoy. For example, governments here have 10 business days to respond to an open records request. Georgia gives governments three days. Members of city and county governments in Georgia must vote to enter a closed-door session, putting themselves on the record to close the doors on the people’s business. In California, an attorney reads the law that allows elected officials to close the doors.

You can see local government performing this dance most recently in the Truckee area.

The Tahoe Truckee Airport District board is in the process of filling a vacant spot on that panel. However, its president and vice president want to avoid a public interview process, like the one the Truckee Town Council used in 2019 to fill an empty seat.

“What the town went through was painful — the public interview and discussion,” airport district Vice President Mary Hetherington has said. “A lot of people had heartburn with that.”

It’s true: Doing the people’s business in public can be hard. Feelings can get hurt. But governing isn’t supposed to be easy, and if you can’t take the heat, get out of the board chambers.

“Heartburn” isn’t a reason to shut the door on our business. Nor it is a reason for Brown Act contortions — having airport board members talk one-on-one with applicants before discussing the issue publicly.

This is a governmental entity that’s considering appointing someone to an elected position, and it intends to do a lot of the work away from public eyes. With this attitude the airport board should have “hiding from the public” in its oath of office.

Who knows. Maybe it already does.

This matters. It matters because all state governments operate under the Brown Act. This has happened before, down in western county, too. When it does, The Union highlights it and fights against it. And so should the Sierra Sun, as well as any other media covering communities where someone attempts to close those doors — whether an attempt to close meetings of the Community Advisory Committee in western county or the airport board shielding the public from its own business.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s in the apparent rise of more candidates running for office.

The Nevada City Council went for several cycles without even needing an election, because there weren’t enough candidates. In March there were six candidates for three seats.

This November the Truckee Town Council has seven people running for two four-year term seats, and two running for a two-year term seat.

And the Tahoe Truckee Airport District has five people running for three seats, in addition to the seat to be appointed by current board members.

Maybe this is a sign that people are growing more interested in their local government, and want to have a greater say in it. They see what their government is doing and want to not only influence those decisions, but help make them as elected officials themselves.

It’s tough to argue that more candidates for office is bad. Instead it’s what we want: more diversity in candidates, and more choice for the voters.

And you can ask those voters during the campaign their thoughts on closing the chamber doors to the people’s business. You can discover who feels that good governance is tied to an open government that needs public participation, and then vote accordingly.

You don’t have to contort yourself into knots to reach that conclusion.

The weekly Our View editorial represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun based in Grass Valley. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.


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