“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
— Justice Louis D. Brandeis
Despite its overuse, I have always loved this quote from Brandeis. However, most people tend to only quote the first half of the sentence. I believe this is because most people only tend to focus on the corruptive tendencies of government power once it has already been discovered. In other words, it’s a lot more captivating to see what’s going on in dark alleyways and halls of government once they’re exposed to the sun.
While exposed scandals and corruption make for better headlines, wouldn’t it be more effective to try to prevent them from happening in the first place? Rather than going in and cleaning up the mess with a disinfectant, shouldn’t we use the electric light to police those areas where we know scandal and corruption grow?
At the end of July, the board of the Utah Inland Port Authority met — officially — for the first time. After a stumbling start in June due to procedural concerns, public outcry over conflicts of interest and some legislative tweaks, the first formal action of the board was to declare that the board would be subject to Utah’s laws requiring transparency, including the Open and Public Meetings Act.
Ironically, after creating a series of subcommittees that would assist the board in creating a budget, searching for an executive director and navigating the tax increment financing process, the board then decided the meetings of these subcommittees would not be open to the public. The board argued these subcommittees would not have enough members to constitute a quorum of the board, thus making them not subject to the Open and Public Meetings Act and unable to make official decisions on behalf of the board. It was also argued that even if these meetings were open, some of the discussions, such as those about a potential executive director, would fall within one of the many provisions of the act that allow for closed meetings.
While these arguments are legally sound, one need only look at other Utah entities to see why it might be better to follow the spirit of the law, rather than hewing to the letter of the law. A large majority of Utahns have lost faith in the Utah Transit Authority, in part because of its decision to hold subcommittee meetings behind closed doors. The Utah Legislature continues to receive criticism every session because of closed meetings and secret votes held behind the closed doors of caucus meetings. City councils were recently criticized after a report found that one council closed 93 percent of its meetings to the public, with others falling not very far behind.
As Derek Miller said after being chosen to lead the Inland Port Authority Board, “This is an important project. I don’t know that we can overstate its importance on the future prosperity of our city.”
High levels of public scrutiny will inevitably follow a project of such importance, as can already be seen over the short course of the authority’s existence. While some topics of discussions should and ought to be held behind closed doors, there is no harm in letting the public monitor these subcommittees and hear their discussions, even if no official decisions are made at that time.
Some may argue that electric lights have not actually reduced crime in cities. Similarly, increased transparency may not necessarily reduce or prevent corruption on the Inland Port Authority Board (if that exists at all). But just as studies have shown that increased lighting does make individuals and communities feel safer, maintaining transparency at every level of the inland port will allow the public to continue feeling trust in its operations.
As the Inland Port Authority moves forward with its unprecedented work, it should do everything within its power to maintain the public’s trust, including opening these subcommittee meetings to the public. Because ultimately, while these board members have not been elected into their positions directly by the people, their work will directly impact the people they serve.
This opinion piece by Chase Thomas first appeared in the Deseret News.