The Johnson City Press Opinion Page Editor Robert Houk penned a strong column on the need for governing bodies to make sure citizens can hear their deliberations during a public meeting.
He was writing in reference to a lawsuit in Greene County where citizens are suing the Industrial Development Board on allegations that it violated the Open Meetings Act when it held a meeting where parts of the deliberations were inaudible. When a citizen, Eddie Overholt, asked the board to speak up so people in the audience could hear, the county mayor who chaired the board ordered him out, and he was led away with his hands behind his back, arrested and thrown into jail.
Houk notes that the IDB has argued in its briefing that they are not required by the Open Meetings Act to make sure their meetings are audible. Instead, they say, they are only required to make sure the public can attend. Houk writes:
This is a fairly ridiculous argument and one that has never been upheld by the courts. Do the defendants truly believe that the lawmakers who passed the Sunshine Law in 1974 expected citizens to be able to read lips?
Reading lips wouldn’t have helped the people who attended the meeting in question. Many of the Industrial Board members sat with their backs to the audience.
And even though the meeting room was equipped with microphones that could have spared everyone a lot of grief and legal bills, they were not turned on.
If the defendants prevail in their argument that public meetings don’t necessarily have to be audible, then we could find elected officials whispering their deliberations in close corners.
That was never the intent of the Open Meetings Act.
Discussing important matters publicly and audibly allows concerned citizens to judge for themselves the merits of the proposals before governing boards, as well as the motivations of those proposing them.
You can follow Robert Houk on his Facebook page. And his read his full column at the Johnson City Press website here: Sunshine Law requires officials to be seen and heard.
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