The two sides of transparency — public bodies and the public

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The two sides of transparency — public bodies and the public

By Barbara Wysocki

In the past two public meetings of the Urbana Free Library Board, the word "transparent" (or the lack thereof) was bandied about frequently by members of the public.

Many came to express their anger about the board's decisions and actions regarding weeding books, allocation of space and management styles — all approved without much public input. Some speakers were philosophical — speculating on the role of libraries and books in this new technological age. This one-way conversation was in a crowded meeting room where standing applause and cheers of support followed almost every statement.

These two meetings were hardly typical of previous board meetings. Until the recent flap, meetings of the Urbana Free Library had no public in attendance other than the League of Women Voters observer.

But if public bodies are to be truly public, the public should be present. That's what transparency is all about: the ability to transmit light from all directions so that objects or images can be seen as if there were no intervening material.

We like to think of democracy at work when irate, concerned citizens fill a cramped meeting room in response to a perceived crisis and attempting to right a wrong. When satisfied with the outcome, citizens go home, until the next time or the next crisis. More often than not, though, transparency works best when both citizens and public institutions care enough to seek more occasions to inform themselves and talk to each other about a situation that affects the public good. Clarity results when both parties understand the other and continue to dialogue through ordinary issues and those more complicated.

All public bodies are expected to exercise a modicum of transparency by announcing a period of public comment or holding a public hearing, particularly on matters of policy or budget. Likewise, the public has a minimal obligation to respond to these invitations — and to the monthly meeting notices — to comment or question. Both parties need to do more than the nominal if the library is to be treasured as Urbana's "jewel."

Absence of the public each month has had the library board talking to itself. Recently, the board has started publishing agendas and minutes online and hopes to televise monthly meetings. Four members admitted attending an in-service regarding the Open Meetings Act.

More could be done — recruiting a larger and more diverse pool of board candidates that more accurately reflect the makeup of the city and even starting meetings earlier so as to avoid the closing 9 p.m. deadline.

Filling the public seats in the meeting room is critical because the board spends public money, develops policies, and makes decisions that impact the library's mission to function as a community resource. These matters are decided not at an annual meeting but each month they meet.

The Urbana Library's future success — the success of our democratic institutions — depends on growing this two-way relationship, continuing the dialogue between citizens and these valued and valuable institutions. Our challenging and changing times demand it. Both parties — citizens and the institution — need to show up and make something happen.

Barbara Wysocki, a retired teacher and former county board member, is president of the Champaign County League of Women Voters.

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