Marianas Variety Guam Edition – The Local and Regional Newspaper

12 23Thu07022015

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Back Opinion Deliberations should have been public

Deliberations should have been public

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WE ARE often thwarted in our mission to cover the news and provide the public with information by the tendency of some government of Guam boards and agencies to go into executive session and deliberate behind closed doors. Often, we hear the excuse that what is being discussed is a personnel matter, but that does not automatically give a legal justification for closed-door discussions. All too frequently, executive sessions are used simply to hide, and our Open Government Law gives them the legal ability to do so.

An example was the recent series of meetings of the Guam Memorial Hospital’s Board of Trustees to discuss the termination of a contract with the TakeCare medical insurance company. Our reporter was several times denied the opportunity to sit in on the meetings and listen to the debate. There was no question about the importance of the issue, affecting as it did more than 30,000 insured customers of TakeCare, plus the financial stability of Guam’s only public hospital. Yet the doors were closed, the debate went on in secret, and reporters were only invited back in to witness the vote.

Our Open Government Law establishes as the policy of this territory “that the formation of public policy and decisions is public and shall not be conducted in secret.” Furthermore: “Under no circumstances shall a public agency hold an executive or closed meeting to discuss legal matters, impending legal matters or legal strategies with an attorney,” but then it goes on to say “... except as herein provided below” and proceeds to go off the track.

Under the law, the designated attorney for the board or agency may make a written recommendation to close a meeting, which must then be acted upon by a majority of the board members. “Only matters directly relating to ongoing litigation or litigation which has been threatened as is reasonably expected may be discussed.” And there’s the rub. The attorney may see a legal threat in just about anything. In fact most of them do. There probably was such potential in the action taken to rescind TakeCare’s agreement.

By putting such a provision in the so-called “Open Government Law,” the lawmakers who passed this law have rendered it essentially meaningless. “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created,” the law says. But it is the attorneys who have that control, not the people.

Thus, even though we feel the TakeCare deliberations should have been open, the attorney for the Board of Trustees disagreed, and a majority of the trustees went along. The openness of governance at Guam Memorial Hospital went out the window as the doors closed.

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