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Open Meeting To the Public

What to do with St. Clairsville’s water system has become a major controversy. Why add to it?

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials are to meet with St. Clairsville City Council at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Plans are for the meeting to be closed to the public and press.

Mayor Terry Pugh has said the closed session was requested by the OEPA. St. Clairsville residents are being asked to submit quesions for the agency, to be submitted by council members during the “executive session.”

Under Ohio law, council cannot merely close the door of its meeting room and exclude the public. A reason must be given — and private meetings are permitted only for certain purposes. There is enough latitude in the law that it is likely someone can come up with an excuse permissible under state code.

Perhaps it is honestly better for some of what OEPA officials want to discuss to be handled privately. But should the entire meeting be secret?

Of course not.

Closed meetings inevitably raise questions about what it is that public officials do not want their constituents to know.

Beyond any reasonable doubt, some St. Clairsville residents will wonder about that if the Wednesday meeting is held behind closed doors.

City officials who favor selling the water system to a private utility — Aqua Ohio — have said they do not believe St. Clairsville can afford to make necessary repairs and improvements to its water system. Many of those mandates have been issued by the OEPA.

OEPA and city officials should conduct most of the meeting in public. If there are matters that legitimately require confidentiality, they can be handled after the open session — but only in compliance with the state open meetings law. Again, that requires stating why a closed session is acceptable.

Both state and municipal officials may think avoiding a confrontation with critics of the privatization proposal is desirable. If so, they are wrong. Closed meetings increase suspicion among members of the public. They merely heat up controversy and, in most situations, are a bad idea.

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