Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Question: When is a public meeting not a public meeting?

Answer: When much of the ground work of the meeting is accomplished before the regular meeting time.

That's what has been happening in Vermillion for several months now. We think it's time for it to end.

The Vermillion City Council began holding special work sessions at noon on Mondays to prepare for official meetings held later that night.

The work sessions, we must admit, didn't concern us that much at first.

Before this practice was implemented, we were contacted.

We were told the work sessions are open to the public. It's not like the city council's work sessions are conducted behind closed doors.

Minutes are kept and published for these work sessions.

And citizens are welcomed to attend.

One of the outcomes of the work sessions are more smoothly conducted city council meetings.

No longer do they drag on for four hours, like they did at times before the work sessions were implemented.

But as the regular meetings have grown more efficient, it finally dawned on us.

If meetings are wrapping up much sooner, it's not a stretch to reason that more and more work is being conducted at the noon gatherings.

The noon meetings are held in the Firemen's Room at Vermillion City Hall.

They are held away from the television cameras of the Vermillion cable television system, so people at home can't view the work sessions.

We have never attended one of the work sessions. Trying to fit an additional meeting into our work schedule � one that's held over the noon hour when we try to grab a bite to eat no less � has proven to be very difficult.

We can't help but think that most citizens of Vermillion have that same problem.

The Vermillion City Council may have had the best intentions in mind when it scheduled these work sessions. No doubt they realized that people scheduled on the agendas of the council's regular meetings had to, at times, sit and wait for hours before they could address the aldermen.

We would rather see the council implement rules for running its regular meetings more efficiently. There can be healthy debate at a regular meeting without letting it drag on and on.

Set time limits. Let people scheduled on the agendas know they have a limited amount of time to speak. We don't think it would be unreasonable for the council to keep track of the time of each debate.

Perhaps it is time for the council to invest in a green-yellow-red lighting system that lets everyone in the meeting chambers know when time for debate on a particular issue should end.

We feel so strongly about this because � and we admit it's taken a long time for us to realize this � a meeting of city council members with no audience members present shares all of the characteristics of a "secret" meeting, or one held in executive session.

We emphasize once more that we were told from the beginning that these work sessions are public meetings. We admit that we have let our readers down by not attending these special meetings.

What we fear � and what everyone in Vermillion should fear � is what may take place during a work session when there is no one in the audience and there are no television cameras rolling. What will stop discussions from drifting to sensitive areas that the public has a right to know about?

We know there are situations when privacy is allowed by law although a perfect world, in our view, would prohibit public boards like city councils from closing meetings to the people for any reason.

The work sessions may not be closed meetings. They have that nature, however, during every instance when there is no one from the public in the audience.

Citizens who elected aldermen to the Vermillion City Council, we assume, would like to see all of the city's business conducted in front of the people.

Stop and think about it. When much of that business is conducted in a public meeting that no one can attend because of its awkward timing, it's no longer a public meeting.

All of the city council's business should be conducted during its regular Monday night meetings.

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