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OPINION: Need for transparency

OPINION: Need for transparency

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You would think transparency with those paying your salary, the ones you work for, would be normal practice, however, too often with elected officials it is not.

Instead of openness, there is a desire to slip behind closed doors, which is what we are seeing happen with the Scottsbluff City Council as it interviews the final pool of candidates for the city manager position.

The pool is down to five candidates. According to the city’s interim manager they selected five to avoid releasing names and resumes calling them instead, “semi-finalists” and not finalists.

However, the state Public Records Statutes gives us a definition of finalist. According to Neb. Rev. Stat. 84-712.05 (15) (b), “finalist means any applicant (i) who reaches the final pool of applicants, numbering four or more, from which the successful applicant is to be selected.”

The interim city manager is playing games. The city council selected those candidates at a recent meeting, which should have been public. Then, when it came to interviewing those candidates, the city council chose to conduct secret interviews. They voted to go into executive session to interview the “semi-finalists,” choosing not to be open and transparent with the people they serve.

There is no reason to hide behind closed doors. The Nebraska Open Meetings Act declares that “every meeting of a public body shall be open to the public…” The Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act outlines exceptions that allow a board to go into executive session. The state Attorney’s General has repeatedly upheld that conducting interviews of candidates is not an acceptable reason for a closed session.

The City of Scottsbluff has cited “protection of the public interest” and “to prevent needless injury to the reputation of an individual” as its excuses for conducting these interviews in executive session.

We have two points here:

First, the public interest is not served by going into executive session. Courts have defined “public interest” for the city and for us. We all have an interest in the appointment of the city manager, who will make fiscal and other decisions to lead our city.

Second, legal precedent, repeatedly restated in numerous opinions of the Nebraska Attorney General, pokes holes in the council’s “needless injury” excuse. Discussing a particular aspect of a candidate’s background to prevent needless injury to his or her reputation does not mean the entire interview, or even a discussion about candidates, can be held in executive session.

If and when such an instance occurred, the council should only go into executive session at that time. Not for one interview. Not for all the interviews.

Scottsbluff’s new city manager will guide the city into the future. They will be the city leader and taxpayers will give them a six figure income. It is the most important position in the city. The city’s present leaders have done the interviews behind closed door. This is not right.

Every citizen should be able to get to know those in the final pool of candidates, whether you call them finalists or “semi-finalists.” Once the council convened to consider those applicants, their identities and application materials should have been disclosed.

The city council is playing a dangerous game in going behind closed doors. A “good faith” intent of the council doesn’t cure its violations, which can even result in criminal prosecution or civil suit. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has also advised boards, like the city council, that violations can result in nullification of the actions of the council. Reliance on counsel or consultants is not a defense for violations. Though such reversals are rare, there is a real possibility any choice made could potentially be voided due to the improper actions by the city council.

The city manager and the city council work for the voters, not for themselves. This includes the interim city manager. It is important for these men and women to remember this fact on every vote they make, especially when they consider slipping behind closed doors to do the city’s business.

Scottsbluff deserves strong, open and transparent leadership from the interim city manager, city council and the future city manager. It is time for Scottsbluff’s leaders to come out from behind their closed doors, follow the Open Meetings Act, and be open and transparent with the citizens of Scottsbluff.

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