Open government means access to e-mails

 

Business and budgeting as usual have gone by the boards for most cities and towns. The revenue picture is grim, and communities are hurting. With but one major revenue source, a property tax paid by people who are also facing hard times, tough decisions must be made. Cut services, including some long considered essential, and reduce the help given residents who need it? Or make life that much harder for taxpayers, who are themselves struggling?

When cuts must be made, passions and suspicions run high. Are those who squawk the loudest, no matter what the merit of their case, winning out at the expense of those with greater needs? Are the well-connected the last to lose their jobs? It’s natural to harbor such suspicions and ask such questions in good times, let alone during the kind of economic angst communities are suffering now.

On Wednesday the Monitor’s Amy Augustine reported on a challenge to a Hopkinton selectman’s decision to discuss potential ways to cut that town’s budget via e-mail messages with the board’s other members. The issue came to light when a resident requested copies of official e-mails and received one marked “Eyes Only.”

Whoops and double whoops. Nonpublic business messages between a quorum of town officials on a matter not exempt under the state’s right-to-know law are a no-no. And sending proof of a potential violation to a member of the public guarantees trouble.

The e-mail, from board Chairman Scott Flood to his colleagues, was an assessment of town needs and wants, with suggestions for which budget items should be considered for cuts and which public properties should be sold.

Those are controversial subjects guaranteed to spur lobbying attempts and protests, but they are under discussion in every town and city hall.

Hopkinton’s practices are better than many: An e-mail message between a quorum of members is, if the sender believes it falls under the right-to-know law, forwarded to the town administrator, who will make it available to the public upon request. There are potential flaws with that system – all town officials may not understand or interpret the law correctly or the same way, for example – but it shows a good-faith effort to conduct open government. Another potential problem exists with such systems because citizens can’t easily ask for something they don’t know exists.

The new system Hopkinton will put in place as a result of resident Janet Krzyzaniak’s request for information is a vast improvement and could become a model for other towns. Hopkinton officials will now e-mail each other using town accounts rather than private accounts, and all messages will go into a folder available to the public at the town hall.

Like Hopkinton’s board members, most local office holders work a full-time job. Town business has become far more complicated and demanding. The ability of officials to communicate by e-mail is a blessing, one that, properly used, greatly benefits citizens who depend on the willingness of volunteers who sacrifice a huge chunk of their time for the good of the community.

In keeping with the times and technology, it would also be helpful, since the messages were created in electronic form, for towns to keep them in a digital folder that’s available to the public on the town’s website. Now that would truly be government at its most open and accessible.

Concord Monitor and New Hampshire Patriot