Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Our Brave Council Should Never 'Retreat'

The new Mesquite City Manager has proposed a "retreat" for the council in the near future, led by our Carson City lobbyist Randy Robison.
Retreats are popular in corporate settings because they get managers away from the distractions and commonality of the workplace and put them in a fresh environment to brainstorm and plan.  It's a tool to foster thinking "outside the box," and is extraordinarily effective.
The problem is that this is another private sector concept that just doesn't translate well into the public sector.  The first problem is that those hawking the "retreat" idea completely forget who is "the boss" in the public sector.  It's not a CEO or board chairman: it's you and me, the average citizen.
While there are genuine benefits to a retreat, the downsides are far too steep to legitimately entertain for any government agency.
For those "retreats" that feature travel to another city, the opportunity for graft and ripping off the taxpayers with expensive stays at pricey resorts is often too tempting to resist.  Then you have the additional unnecessary gas and mileage expenses.  Factor that across the inclusion of numerous staff members who all have to trundle to the retreat site, and it's easy to see how a good idea can become a boondoggle involving thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars.
At a time when a city government is looking to tighten belts even further, including layoffs, this is an insulting option.
Then you have "local retreats," where the officials wander off to another site within the same city.  For the last few years, the City of Mesquite has held these gatherings at the new fire station on the other side of the city, near the Do It Best distribution center.  It's cost effective, considering the property is owned by the city. 
Unfortunately, this highlights the even bigger drawback to government retreats.  Believe it or not, there are some things that are even more important than squandering public funds, and this is probably the biggest:
Technically, the events are open to the public.
However, I can attest after attending several of these over the years that the only "public" that shows up are people with vested interests like developers, consultants, and others who have a financial stake in what gets discussed at these meetings.
It's not just that the gatherings are conducted in a part of town that most people have never traveled, or that the meetings are held during the middle of the day.
Holding these meetings "off-site" also means "off-camera."  Unlike the City Council meetings and other important sessions held in the City Hall Council Chambers, these "retreats" are not televised.
The question you need to ask is: Why?
Certainly there are technical issues involving cameras and communications with the local cable stations.  But those are surmountable.
Also, cameras themselves don't impact or impede the actual proceedings, aside from the grandstanding that such exposure can elicit.
The truth is that such "retreats" offer a little bit of shade from the Sunshine laws.
We should oppose and protest ANY significant sessions that are not held with the video cameras rolling.  To do otherwise is to invite more secrecy, more opportunities for the public to be excluded from the fact-finding and decision-making process. 
It has long been an irony of our times that governments have repeatedly authorized laws that allow video cameras to film people in stores and businesses, and even authorize the use of government-owned video cameras to record private citizens walking on public sidewalks and driving on public streets, but run away from the idea of videotaping the actions of public servants.
Also, there is the issue of perception.  If it looks like our electeds are doing things in private, it gives credence to cries of "back-room good-ole-boy politics."
We are currently blessed with one of the best councils we've had in years.  One of their first acts was to start opening their "technical sessions" to the public, after being held in secret by the previous regime.  They have also been extraordinarily transparent in their actions and decision-making, despite the best efforts of a city attorney who thrives on secretive "attorney-client sessions" behind closed doors (like the one she called right in the middle of last week's council meeting).  This has led to a lot of public discourse, and it appears as if this council is actually listening to all of the people, not just their hand-picked henchmen. 
It would be a travesty for this collection of well-liked elected officials to opt for off-site sessions where the public would be effectively excluded.  They should decline the City Manager's suggestion to hold such a meeting anywhere other than City Hall, unless it's a site where the meetings could be broadcast on cable TV.
This group has worked too hard, and been far too courageous, to succumb to a "retreat" now.

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