Meetings must be open

On March 24, I called attention to Philippi City Council member Terrence Boyd’s speech that declared he was willing to charge citizens with a misdemeanor and file libel charges if he felt free speech by citizens threatened his political career or got their facts wrong.

In my column, I called on other council members to defend the people’s right to free speech. In the following meeting on April 1, Mayor Jerry Mouser and council members Ed Larry, Barbara Bryan, Jeff Allen and John Green remained silent on this issue. Their silence symbolizes they support Boyd’s anti-democratic rhetoric.

If we look at how the council operates, we shouldn’t be surprised no member would express individual courage. In the past year, from April 2, 2013, to March 18, 2014, all present council members voted in agreement 74 out of 80 times. Even more interestingly, there has been next to no discussion before these votes. When I first started attending these meetings as a reporter, I asked myself, “How can this be? Do these people have telepathic powers?”

Then I discovered their secret.

The council was holding pre-meetings without notifying the public. This was a violation of state Sunshine Laws. Once I pointed this out, the city began complying with the law by posting an agenda.

However, the city continues to propagate the illusion that the only meeting is the general meeting. They hold this meeting in the official council chambers and televise it on cable access.

In contrast, the pre-meeting is held in the same room as executive sessions. The room has barely enough chairs for the officials and practically no room to stand. In addition, when citizens arrive early to attend the general meeting, the council members close the door to their pre-meeting to keep anyone from hearing their conversations.

The pre-meeting may be open to the public, but the city certainly isn’t making it easy for anyone to know about it or even physically attend. This pre-meeting is legal, but it’s obviously shady. And what continues to occur in these meetings may still violate state law.

The general meeting is missing discussion because it occurs in the pre-meeting. The members also decide who will make nominations, and discuss and decide how they will vote. This also explains the unanimous votes. If there’s no consensus, the issue somehow won’t make it to the so-called real meeting. The pre-meeting writes the script for the general meeting – all before a single citizen gets to speak in what the citizens believe is the real council meeting.

If the council members have nothing to hide, then ideally they should have only one council meeting. If they feel necessary to have a pre-meeting, why aren’t they holding it in council chambers and televising it?

All of this shows why the council feels comfortable assaulting free speech. They’ve created a culture where they don’t see themselves as servants of the people; power’s deluded them into thinking they are the government. We should remember the words from “V for Vendetta”: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” It’s time to demand an end to the shady dual-meeting structure. Open the doors and let the sun shine in.