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For anyone who believes in accountability and transparency in the operation of taxpayer-supported institutions, the words "secret ballot" will send shivers down the spine.

The notion of elected or appointed public officials making decisions under any veil of secrecy runs counter to good government and promotes a perception among taxpayers that the people in charge want their money but not their oversight.

Open government is rooted in the very American notion that the people -- not government -- shall reign supreme, that government of the people is instituted by the people for the people.

It's astonishing, though, how easily and often examples reflect less than a firm commitment to such ideals.

Locally, the latest site of a (hopefully) momentary infraction against the public was at Northwest Technical Institute, a publicly funded educational institution that offers occupational training to make the region's workforce better prepared for the ever-changing work environment.

This latest circumstance might appear minor, except that it reflects an attitude that has no proper place in a public entity.

A five-member board of directors, appointed by the state's governor, oversees operation of Northwest Technical Institute. At a recent meeting, a rather routine exercise of electing a vice chairman suddenly became less so. Two members, Carlos Chicas and Derek Gibson, were nominated. They and members Tommy Free, Aaron Wright and Anthony Doss had a decision to make.

Just as the board was about to vote, NTI President Blake Robertson intervened with a suggestion: Vote on slips of paper, anonymously. When Free inquired about whether that's within the rules, Robertson offered assurances that it was. Gibson was selected in a 3-2 vote to serve as vice chairman. So we have five public appointees conducting the public's business in a secret ballot.

It's a clear violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, which since 1967 has protected the public's right to information about how decisions are reached and how public money is spent.

Robertson, after questions arose, said he didn't know the rules and was trying to help board members "avoid embarrassment" in voting for their choice for vice chairman.

How embarrassing is it to fulfill one's public responsibilities? Robertson and the board members are obligated to follow state law in the performance of their duties.

Mistakes happen, but this kind of error reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the public nature of Robertson's job and the decision-making roles of the board members. What needs to be covered up? Doesn't a secretive process just raise questions about what's really going on beyond the veil?

Tough public decisions are the name of the game at public institutions. If anyone has a problem with that, don't seek or accept public positions.

In the absence of knowledge -- that is, ignorance of the law -- public officials must default to behaviors that reject shielding information from the public they serve. The law and service to the public allow few and narrow exceptions for the open and transparent conduct of government business.

The embarrassment in public service arises from behaviors that do not fully appreciate who the boss is. It's the people who pay the bills, whose tax dollars government takes in the name of doing the public's business. That business must remain in full view in all but the rarest legally defined circumstances.

Commentary on 10/18/2019

Print Headline: So technically wrong

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