Our Call: Closed sessions happen too much for transparency



For decades, we’ve believed that local government boards have held closed sessions for discussions that could and should be held in public. But without being in the closed sessions ourselves, that’s difficult to figure out and even harder to prove.

Board members often misunderstand that boards don’t have to go into closed session for anything, even personnel issues: The Sunshine Law says that boards can go into closed session, not that they have to.

Should school boards go into closed session to discuss student issues? Sure. But on the other end of the spectrum, should St. Louis city’s Airport Advisory Working Group have gone entirely into closed session for the last 18 months to discuss whether to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport? No.

On the St. Louis County level, the County Council had rarely held closed sessions for decades, but started holding them fairly regularly under then-Chairman (now-County Executive) Sam Page, starting with a meeting in January 2017 to fire the county auditor and, the next month, hire current county Auditor Mark Tucker. Why did the council want to fire the auditor and put Tucker in his place? We still don’t know three years later.

Could such an important hiring discussion be made in public?

Yes, and it’s even been done in South County before: Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines was hired on a public vote in 2015, and until the last few years, his contract was a public vote.

But that almost never happens. The attitude of most boards, guided by their attorneys, seems to be: Go into closed session for nearly everything you can. No one will ask too many questions.

So it was a pleasant surprise last month when the Board of Commissioners for the Bi-State Development Agency, more commonly known as Metro, chose unanimously to stay in open session to discuss whether it should take over the Loop Trolley, at the insistence of the Madison County wing of the board.

Sometimes all it takes is one or two determined officials to make a difference for government openness and transparency. We applaud Derrick Cox and Justin Zimmerman for requesting a public conversation and not taking no for an answer.

As the board meets again this week to consider the trolley takeover, let’s hope that conversation continues to happen in public.