Public Services Downsizing Talks in a Fishbowl

OPEN MEETINGS — When a hand-picked advisory committee is assigned by a local agency's governing body to look at the depressing options for cutting the agency's programs or facilities to fit a shrunken budget, its meetings are open under the Brown Act.  But should everything said be reported in the press, no matter how tentative?  Many reporters' reflexes may find the answer obvious, but the Modesto Bee's Michelle Hatfield has given the question some careful thought.

Naturally, I wanted to observe the process.  My intent isn't to
write a story from each meeting, but just watch the process and how
people discuss options — what options are considered, not considered,
etc.  Superintendent Arturo Flores, other administrators and some board
of education members weren't too excited about me being there, and
Flores told me through a spokesperson that I was not welcome, that my
presence would be "inappropriate."  The concern was that committee
members wouldn't be as open and honest if I was there because their
names might appear in the paper along with suggestions they made in the
meeting.  They were afraid I would write something like, "So and so
said all athletics should be cut."

I understand that concern.  So
I thought about it and talked with my editors.  I thought to last fall,
winter and spring when two local school districts made agonizing
decisions about budget cuts and closing schools.  Stanislaus Union and
Empire Union school districts held numerous committee meetings to
discuss their options.  These committees were composed of
administrators, trustees, teachers, staff and parents.  I observed many
of these meetings leading up to final board action to see how the
committees went about their decisions.  Two schools were chosen by
trustees for closure.  Those committees also were advisory.  Throughout
these meetings, members freely expressed their opinions, however
controversial, and discussions sometimes got heated.  They knew I was
there, but that did not seem to deter their openness.  I even asked one
of the committee leaders if my being there was ever a concern for her
or committee members — she said no, that she was using me to inform
the public.

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