So few people attended the last Grand Lake Board of Trustees workshop and meeting that almost no one witnessed an amazing movement in municipal government.
To preface what I’m about to say, I’ve covered hundreds of public meetings in multiple states — from school boards to city and town councils — and I’ve never heard or seen anything like I did Feb. 28 in Grand Lake. For me at least, it was inspiring and it was wonderful.
The moment itself came quietly and passed quickly, barely a blip on the radar, as the town’s elected leaders waded through an interesting pitch from a property owner willing to pay out serious cash for a town-approved buffer against development around his property. As more than one board member agreed, it was an “intriguing” offer.
During the discussions, though, a trustee asked why the board wasn’t talking about this behind closed doors, in an executive session, as the law provides for private conversations when weighing potential deals involving real estate transactions.
“No, any negotiation for land can be done in executive session,” Town Manager John Crone replied, emphasizing the word “can.”
“Nothing ever has to be done in executive session except for certain personnel issues,” he continued. “You can negotiate in front of the public all you want.”
Oh, be still my beating heart. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was like Mr. Crone took the words out of my mouth, perhaps verbatim. How many times, I thought, have I pulled out my soapbox, jumped up on top and made the same speech? More than I can remember, that’s for sure.
But usually, when I say things like this, I feel like a naive idealist, too wrapped up in the way things should be to understand how the world really works. I suppose that feeling comes from the looks I get when I’m making speeches on my soapbox and the way I can see most public officials have stopped listening.
Maybe, I have a unique perspective. Throughout my experience as a working journalist, I’ve been kicked out of so many public meetings because, at some point, they usually go into an executive session.
I understand there are a few good reasons for closing the public out of some of public’s business, but I’ve also come to believe that too many governments go too eagerly into executive sessions anytime an agenda item skims one of the exemptions.
Once the doors close, I’ve always wondered what gets said and how the public’s business is being conducted when there’s no way for the public to know. The exemptions for an executive session set forth by law are few, but the number of executive sessions held by government bodies is many.
To me at least, it seems that rather than airing on the side of openness and transparency, elected officials and town staff elect to play it safe and close up shop every time they can. I’ve never seen town staff or an elected official actively question if a discussion, which could be private, needs to be private. From what I’ve seen, officials handle executive sessions like they run on autopilot. If it checks a box, they close the door.
At the last Grand Lake board meeting, the audience was scarce with me, Public Works Director Keith Everhart and one of candidates who’s running for a seat on the board filling out the entire gallery.
At the end of the small powwow, Grand Lake Mayor Jim Peterson took note of the empty chairs and levied tough words for the other board candidates who missed the meeting with so many important items on the agenda. I wish more people had been there too.