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The trust and confidence of the public in the integrity of their government is critical. Pew Research Center data shows historical lows in public trust of the federal government, with only 18% of respondents indicating they believe Washington will do what is right “almost always” or “most of the time”. Public confidence in local government is much higher. Gallup research shows much stronger trust in state government, at 62%. Local governments have the highest level of public trust, with 71% of respondents in the Gallup survey having a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in local government to solve problems.
Public confidence in government is maintained when public officials develop policy in an open and transparent manner. When citizens do not feel heard, or, even worse, perceive they are intentionally excluded from important discussions by public officials, their trust in government is compromised.
In 1975 the Nebraska Open Meetings Act established the guidelines under which public policy in local government would be conducted. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret. Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the public in order that citizens may exercise their democratic privilege of attending and speaking at meetings of public bodies”. If you have ever attended a public board meeting, you have likely heard the chair open the meeting with reference to the law and where to find it posted in the meeting room.
The Nebraska Open Meetings Act recognizes the importance of citizen access and public input to the decisions of public officials. Citizen participation in public meetings is a two-way process. Officials have the opportunity to hear from their constituents before making decisions that impact the public. Additionally, open meetings provide an opportunity for the public to gain information, data, and background that inform board member decisions. Public officials have an obligation to listen to the public. Citizens also have an obligation to educate themselves about important policy issues.
Open communication between government and the public is achieved through many means. Rules about public notice, agendas, and minutes are not procedural boxes to be checked. They are essential elements to insure the public is aware of what government is doing and have ample time to engage in the process if they so choose. Work and family commitments often limit how a voter may be able to physically participate in a public meeting. In such cases, detailed agendas published with adequate notice and comprehensive minutes of official actions are critical.
Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act is to be interpreted in favor of openness to the public. Making difficult and potentially unpopular decisions are not easy as an elected official. However, the more controversial a policy, the greater the need for an open dialogue between public officials and citizens. Public trust is not doing only what is popular or not upsetting people. Open communication and meetings allow even those who disagree to have a voice in the process and make decisions from a common set of facts.
Citizen apathy undermines the effectiveness of representative government. All too often I hear from local elected officials who tell me nobody attends their meetings or asks questions about their decisions. Our civic duty does not end at casting our ballot. It extends to a responsibility to remain engaged in the public process, even when it becomes routine and mundane.
On the other hand, when a controversial issue emerges–like wind farm developments, nursing home closures, or bond issues–hearing rooms are suddenly packed with vocal constituents. While public disagreements can challenge a community, citizens engaging in the policy process is a good thing. When the public cares enough to engage, they are taking ownership of their community. Better public policy will result.