Ian Stepleton’s stories last week revealed that while city staff tried to dampen elected officials’ desire to approve the ill-fated downtown-development deal with Boca Grande Capital, taxpayers had no clue about what was going on behind the scenes at City Hall.

Despite $8.6 million in public dollars at stake, they were not privy to information dispensed during Boca Chairman Jim Connelly’s meetings with elected officials. You knew that.

But what you may not have known until last week is that City Administrator Steve Barg, Assistant City Administrator Lori Rich and City Attorney Lud Wurtz were at odds with elected officials as to the financial prudence of the deal.

Lesson learned? The public (and local newspaper) must challenge those who represent them to maximize their transparency — to meet, discuss and vote in public whenever possible.

That the state’s open-meetings law enables officials to meet in rare and tightly constricted circumstances does not require them to do so. More public scrutiny of Boca’s proposed payback and a public review of staff concerns might have averted what now is a long and expensive legal process.

Even with no public airing of discussion, negotiations and concerns regarding terms of a development agreement that was considered and approved behind closed doors, a few members of the public early on suspected the deal didn’t smell right.

While this is no time to play the blame game, we can’t move forward until we learn from our past: Don’t trust a government that prefers to do business away from the glare of the public spotlight.

As recently as last week, Ripon School Board members met in closed session to decide how to cut classroom aides’ hours. They hashed this out in secret, although they had no legal basis to do so.

Wisconsin’s Open Meetings law permits a public body to meet in secret to discuss changing a particular employee’s working conditions, but does not allow the same for a class of employees defined by their position, except when collective bargaining (related only to wage hikes not to exceed the cost of living) is involved.

As Louis Bock wrote in a fine letter to the editor two weeks ago, government bodies are comprised of upstanding individuals. But collectively, they prefer to avoid public scrutiny when legally possible. Recent history shows they do so at their peril.

When they meet in secret to do your business without you watching, they risk getting in trouble because they forget they still are accountable for their actions.

— Tim Lyke

To read the entire editorial, see the May 1, 2014 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.

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