Bob Bernick’s notebook: Behind closed doors

When is it OK, or appropriate, for a public official, or a group of public officials, to hold closed-door meetings?

Of course, we in Utah have the official Open Meetings Act, which tells public bodies when they must hold open meetings, properly noticed and such.

So clearly those meetings must be open to the public and the press.

But the debate over closed meetings comes up now because House Speaker Greg Hughes and others met in private negotiation meetings for hours and hours to come up with a Prop. 2 – medical marijuana – compromise.

Those meetings were perfectly legal – the Open Meetings Act didn’t apply to them.

And one can see that when negotiating on sensitive subjects, it may be better to do it quietly.

On this specific issue, there will be (and have been) public hearings on the compromise bill. And, of course, if the bill is passed in a special session next month, then there will be public debate and votes by House and Senate members.

In the past, I have been critical about the internal rule that allows legislators to keep bills they are working on secret until the bill is formally introduced in the Legislature.

I was critical because sometimes such bills are kept secret to avoid public controversy. And they are introduced late in the general session, with little time for public hearings, or opposition to build against the measure.

So, if lawmakers’ bills should be made public – at least by title or subject matter – long before they are introduced, why shouldn’t meetings of public officials and others over controversial issues be public?

I think the fact that compromise/negotiation meetings are being held SHOULD be public knowledge.

If the speaker of the Utah House is meeting with pro and con advocates of medical marijuana, the fact those meetings are taking place should be public.

That would allow other interested parties who may not have been invited to the meetings to make their objections known – maybe demand they be included in the closed-door meetings.

But I understand why the meetings themselves should be private.

I’ve moved to this stand over many years of being a reporter who covers public officials and issues.

As a fiery cub reporter back in the late 1970s, I probably would have demanded that I and other journalists be allowed into such private meetings – so we could do what reporters do – enlighten the public about what their public officials are doing.

When I covered City Hall, former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson had a personal policy – his daily meeting schedule was made public, and it was up to those who he met with to say whether the meeting was open or closed.

One day the late Jack Gallivan, publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, showed up on Wilson’s meeting schedule.

The Trib reporter at the time and I walked into the mayor’s office and waited to go into the meeting with Gallivan.

Gallivan showed up, he and Wilson walked from the lobby into Wilson’s private office, and Gallivan slammed the door shut in our faces – closed meeting.

We found out the topic later – I forget what it was. But the point was clear – open meetings with public officials are a matter of personal opinion.

So, after 40 years as a working journalist, I can see the need for private meetings with public officials over public policy issues – as long as the meeting subject itself is made public, and the compromises worked out also are made public in plenty of time to get feedback from citizens and all interested parties.

And public officials – whether elected or appointed – should always realize they are working for the public, being paid by the public, and in fact are public servants, not public bosses.

The 4,000-line medical marijuana compromise bill is now public. You can read it here.

Time to focus now on the compromise itself.

Is this product of a closed-door negotiation worthy of being passed into law?

The public process of this compromise is now starting.

Citizens and journalists should now judge the product and public process now going forward.