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The city and secrecy: Shutting citizens out

May 26, 1999

The sad thing about the Hagerstown City Council's growing addiction to secrecy is not that it inconveniences The Herald-Mail's reporters. Sooner or later, the inside dope on what's been done in secret comes out and reporters can write their stories.

No, the sad thing is that elected officials are unwilling to treat citizens as partners in the process of running the city. Give us your tax money, the council says, but don't ask to watch while we decide how to spend it.

Is that too harsh a judgment? Consider this quote from Councilman J. Wallace McClure, who defended the council's decision to close most of this year's budget hearings by saying that "If they had been open to the public, we would have heard from everyone, and it would have taken forever."

Maybe so, although we doubt it. No more than a handful of citizens regularly attend council meetings, and since the council agreed in advance that the two things they wouldn't do with this year's budget was to raise taxes or lay off employees, there didn't figure to be any controversy that would draw a crowd.

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What it comes down to is that dealing with the public can be difficult. Some citizens who get a raise every year in their own jobs have a difficulty understanding that government's costs increase annually as well, and that waste and abuse are easier to talk about than to find.

But part of the job of an elected official is to be patient, to teach and communicate with citizens. In our experience, most people are reasonable if you make a good-faith effort to tell them what you're doing, and why.

In this year's budget process, the Hagerstown Mayor and Council haven't made that effort. In fact, they've insulted citizens by claiming that things like the number of garbage collections made every week are personnel matters.

That's why Herald-Mail has complained to Maryland Open Compliance Board, a state group set up in 1992 to monitor compliance with the state's open-meetings law. There's no penalty for being found in violation, but in our view the city government should worry less about state law and more about the damage they've done by shutting out the citizens who pay their salaries.

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