The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, speaking of open meetings and above-board actions of elected and appointed officials, once said that sunshine is still the best disinfectant.
A metaphoric observation, of course, but nonetheless applicable in the case of the recent first-ever joint meeting of Louisiana’s five higher education boards.
Apparently at least two members of the University of Louisiana System Board of Trustees don’t see the necessity of making board decisions in the open and in public view.
Strangely enough, it took a suggestion from an outsider to inadvertently elicit remarks by the two ULS trustees that perhaps Louisiana should have no open meetings laws on the books.
Their utterances, whether made out of arrogance or ignorance, should anger every voter in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s “transparency in government” long ago turned into a sick joke, so there’s no need to add insult to injury.
Terry MacTaggart of the national Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (yes, it turns out even university governing boards have their own national lobby), served as moderator for the event and suggested to board members that they hold a “pre-meeting” in order to formulate policy.
Such “pre-meeting” would be in direct violation of the state’s open meetings laws which expressly prohibit any public body meeting in secret to discuss business. Board of Regents Chairman Bob Levy of Ruston, who also serves as district attorney for the Third Judicial District of Louisiana that includes Lincoln and Union parishes, was quick to set MacTaggart straight. He told MacTaggart, who works out of Washington, D.C., that Louisiana law strictly prohibits such activity.
It was at this point that ULS board member Gerald “T-Boy” Hebert and board Chairman Winfred Sibille contributed their opinions that should demand their immediate resignations.
Hebert, a major financial contributor to the University of Louisiana Lafayette, responding to Levy’s reminder of the requirements of the state’s “vigorous open meetings law,” hinted that perhaps a “joint effort to lobby the Legislature will change the law.”
Did he really suggest weakening or worse, abolishing the state’s open meetings law? Sounds that way to us.
But in a statement that dripped with irony, Sibille said, “The worst thing that can happen at a board meeting is a surprise.” That remark in itself was something of a surprise. Apparently all public meetings are supposed to go smoothly with no debate or open discussion. Sibille then underscored that sentiment when he added, “All problems should be resolved before the meeting.”
Perhaps not since the days of Huey Long has anyone been so brazen as to suggest that public input be shut out of the decision-making process by any public body in Louisiana.
Open political debate has been the hallmark of this country’s government since its founding nearly 235 years ago. In New England they still have town meetings which are nothing like the orchestrated, controlled town meetings held by presidents Bush and Clinton and our current governor. Those are sound bite opportunities. New England town meetings are the bedrock of democracy. At those events, local citizens actively participate in policy-making decisions. To suggest otherwise to the citizenry there would be an open invitation to a new American Revolution.
If Hebert and Sibille are so arrogant as to have even a scintilla of conviction in what they said in that joint meeting, they should resign immediately.
If they are so ignorant as to not realize the ramifications of their remarks, then they have no business serving on any public board—certainly not the self-parody of a board of higher education—and they should resign immediately.
In short, there is no logical reason for either man remaining on any board.
There is no room for public men to advocate private decision-making by a public, taxpayer-supported board out of the sight of the taxpaying public. Their comments should incite outrage among voters.
Conversely, Louisianans owe a debt of gratitude to both Regents Chairman Bob Levy and ULS board member Jimmy Faircloth.
Faircloth, former executive counsel to Gov. Jindal, fired his own volley when he said board members get agendas and background information prior to the meetings so they should be prepared to discuss issues going in. But the public doesn’t always get the full story, he said. “Some of the substance is not discussed in meetings,” he said. “News about higher education is distributed through carefully-tailored press releases.”
Faircloth said none of the board members are elected but instead are appointed, so they should be prepared to make tough decisions and not be afraid of speaking their minds. “It would be healthy for open discussions to be on the record,” he said.
Levy was even blunter. Many board members are afraid of open discussions at open meetings, he said.
That begs the obvious question: Why are they afraid?
We’d be interested in hearing their answers.
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