Editorial: The public's business should be conducted in public

Whatever they've got to say, they can say in front of everyone.

This is a modern take on the founding notion of the United States that the public is entitled to know about the formulation implementation of public policy.

There are a few instances under the law that allow government business to be conducted in a closed forum, but they are specific and designed to protect the public interest in, for example, land dealings.

They are not, as Harford County government's chief of staff put it earlier this week, to make it possible to have a meeting "in a very constructive setting."

The chief of staff's logic is not only counter to the principle of government by, for and of the people, it also is based on flawed logic.

A little background is in order. A public outcry has erupted over plans by Walmart to move from its Constant Friendship Boulevard location in Abingdon to a site at the southern end of Bel Air near the intersection of Route 924 and Plumtree Road.

Public meetings on the project have been well attended and generally devolved into shouting matches and grandstanding opportunities for a few public officials and would-be public officials.

They have not been productive.

The flawed solution devised by Harford County Government was to put together a meeting involving county officials, Walmart representatives and carefully chosen members of affected community. The flawed part: there was no public notice of the meeting, nor was the general public allowed to attend.

"By advertising it [the meeting] and putting it out there it would have been a meeting that would have been completely unwieldy," Aaron Tomarchio, the chief of staff for the county, told an Aegis reporter. There's every reason to believe he is right about this. The problem is, however, that having a secret meeting to try to resolve the volatile situation isn't going to work because it excludes so many people who feel so strongly about the situation.

The situation, by the way, is an especially sticky one. Walmart's plans to make a move are permitted under zoning for the new Bel Air location. Some in the community pushed for that zoning classification for that property because they didn't want to see apartments on the land, which was its prior zoning. It may not be fair that the community will be subjected to increased traffic problems in an already busy area, but it's not legal to tell Walmart it can't build what is permitted under the current zoning.

A private room with quiet discussions, or a noisy auditorium with angry people letting fly, is a question that won't be easily resolved.

Arrogant as it is to presume that the public's business can be more effectively conducted in private, it also is a presumption based on impossible logic. .

The bottom line is private discussions of the public's business can only be relied upon to reach long-term resolutions if the irritated public groups are written out of the process entirely. This, of course, is not democracy.

Holding public policy meetings in private is essentially a giant step away from open government and the republican ideals of our nation.

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