Editorial: Secrecy in meetings is a bad sign

We admire new SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig for wanting to thoroughly educate herself about the city and its finances before starting the formal budget process. However, her appointment of a 32-member Financial Sustainability Task Force verges on overzealous.

Two of the city’s powerful unions, representing police and firefighters, are refusing to participate. They say the membership of the task force — a roster of the usual movers and shakers in business, construction, tourism, nonprofits, etc. — is skewed because it doesn’t include average citizens and has a disproportionate number of nonresidents.

Even worse, in our view, is the secrecy surrounding the meetings. The press and public will not be allowed to attend, though Lichtig says that minutes of each session will be posted on the city’s website. Statements will not be attributed to any individual members, however.

Lichtig believes the anonymity will allow participants to speak freely, without concern that their comments will get into the newspaper.

We’ve heard that rationale many, many times — it’s trotted out almost every time public officials try to do public business in private. We don’t buy it.

We know and respect the members of this task force, and we are confident that they are fully capable of making statements in a diplomatic and constructive manner, so we don’t see the need to grant anonymity.

Besides, are there really topics that are so controversial or outlandish that speakers have to be granted the shield of anonymity?

It’s no secret that many in the community believe the city must scale back employee wages, benefits and pensions, especially for public safety workers.

It’s time to deal with that openly and honestly, rather than murmuring about it in closed-door meetings.

If Lichtig really wanted no-holds-barred, totally off-the-record briefings with community members, why not set up a series of small, informal get-togethers with various groups? Why go through all the rigmarole of forming a task force with agendas, rules of procedure and minutes?

After all, the city already has a thorough budget review process that includes surveys and multiple public meetings, culminating in a goal-setting workshop. Business leaders, educators, environmentalists, senior citizens — virtually all members of the community — have multiple opportunities to share their views and make recommendations.

Is there truly a need to invite community leaders to provide additional input via a secret task force? And really, how much business can an unwieldy group of 32 actually accomplish?

Again, we commend Lichtig for her wanting to be as well-prepared as possible for the task before her, but unfortunately, she’s chosen a method that has alienated some segments of the community before the budget process has even gotten under way.

We strongly urge Lichtig to reconsider and, if she still believes a task force is necessary, she should open the meetings to the press and public.