Saturday, June 18, 2011

Opening up the Athens County Democratic Party

by Michael O'Brien

“sunshine is the best disinfectant” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Is there ever a circumstance when elected officials can take a vote in secret? And not just any vote but one that determines who will fill a vacated, elected position. The obvious answer is no. Imagine an elected governing body voting in secret with no accountability for who voted and how. Naturally many politicians might well prefer a system that allows them to wield power of office without the hassle and inconvenience of having to defend their voting record.

Long criticized for a perception of secrecy, the Central Committee of the Athens County Democratic Party was recently given an education in openness and transparency. The occasion was a meeting of the committee to select a county prosecutor to replace the retiring C. David Warren. With Warren’s term running through 2012 the decision would have long-felt consequences for both the citizens of Athens County and the Democratic Party.

Let us stipulate to the credentials of the candidates, Athens City Pat Lang and acting Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn both as loyal Democrats and as attorneys who spoke forcefully about their prosecutorial experience.

But before the speeches it quickly became apparent that many members of the Central Committee came to the meeting with an expectation of being able to cast a ballot in secret, safe from scrutiny and any perceived political fallout.

A crowd of people filled the small court room in the Athens City Building to standing room only capacity, spilling out into the hallway. Members of the community and the press waited along with members of the Party’s Central and Executive Committees. The heavy atmosphere of politics was evident especially when the presence of a representative of the Ohio Democratic Party was acknowledged by Party Chair Bill Bias.

Chris Redfern, Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party had dispatched Bill DeMora, parliamentarian with the Ohio Democratic Party, to remind the Party of the rules and laws governing the selection of candidates to vacated elected offices. DeMora saying “this is democracy” pointed out that if the vote was conducted in secret, the Republican Ohio Secretary of State Husted would invalidate the results and possibly choose the next prosecutor, most certainly not a Democrat.

As the discussion turned toward the past practice of conducting secret votes a low grumble was audible throughout the chamber. The rumble grew louder as committee members took the floor to claim for instance that Central Committee members “we’re not city council people, we’re not county commissioners…this is putting people on the spot”. Party Chair Bill Bias bemoaned the change, his voice taking on an apologetic tone. “I did not ask for this tonight. I wish things were not changing. “I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get people to run for Central Committee and to take part in democracy the way that you’re going to be asked to tonight.”

More difficult to take part in democracy? Mr. Bias, himself a member of the Athens City Council, knows full well that elected officials by statute must hold votes in public.

Is Bias advocating that all elected officials be allowed to vote in secret? Is he just shy about bucking tradition? Or is it a case of confusing the ability of people to cast a secret vote away from the prying eyes of government during an election and elected officials voting in secret in order to protect themselves from public scrutiny and political consequences? American history is replete with examples of people in power rationalizing their behavior on the basis of always having done it this way or that way.

During my tenure in the corporate sector I made a career of informing people that doing it “because we’ve always done it this way” was contrary to the goals of the organization and sometimes to the stockholders.

Would anyone accept the vote of city council or county commission that was not completely open? Imagine if a local school board withheld the details of how members voted revealing only the yeas and nays with no names attached. I suspect there would be an outcry complete with pitchforks and cries of vote the bums out!

Chris Redfern made the right call by protecting both the rule of law and the integrity of the Democratic Party bylaws. Let’s hope that Bill Bias takes the hint, gets with the program, guards the public trust and lets the sunshine in before he finds himself on the outside looking in.

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