Our Call: Charter panel, Freeholders should be open for public

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Editorial

The St. Louis County Charter Commission only had until Dec. 31 to come up with changes to the county Charter, the constitution-like document that governs the county, but it didn’t agree on any major proposals.

The commission did choose to send at least 14 relatively minor proposals to the ballot, as reported this week by Staff Reporter Erin Achenbach.

The panel has met weekly since March, and Achenbach was the only reporter who attended almost every meeting. But even so, some decisions and actions taken by the commission remain unclear because much of the actual work was done behind the scenes in work groups that The Call was banned from attending.

The commission held work groups designated under such topics as Local Governance before its meetings each week. The Call attempted to start attending them right away, but then-County Clerk Genevieve Frank said that the meetings were not open to the public and this newspaper could not attend. In fact, she said that the Charter Commission didn’t have to abide by the Sunshine Law, but was only choosing to. But it was not extending that to its work groups.

“I think they made the determination that the functionality of the work groups was to gather ideas, not make decisions, and this body makes the decisions,” said Assistant County Counselor Stephanie Hill, speaking of the Charter Commission itself, when The Call asked why we could not attend the meetings.

But it often seemed that most major decisions were made in work groups. In open session of the Charter Commission, members would often say that the work group had decided something a certain way, without going into detail about why or how.

In one puzzling trajectory, the commission talked about minimum police standards, then tasked a work group with developing them. The work group met for months and then came back with bare-bones standards that the panel promptly shot down.

How? Why? Why had the work group settled on these particular standards? Who did they talk to? Who objected to the standards? The commission’s ultimate conversation on the standards was not as substantive as, apparently, the months of conversations in the work group were.

Why does this matter now? If the Board of Freeholders meets this year, we hope it doesn’t take this same end run around transparency. We believe the public has a right to know what is said in all these meetings.