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‘Secret’ meeting not so secret


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AS “secret” meetings go, the one last month in Hutch Schumaker’s garage was pretty much a dud.

Some uninvited folks knew about it before it happened. A lot of others had details on it within hours after it was over.

By nightfall some of the attendees had fired off emails explaining why they were there. The letters to the editor began arriving a day later.

According to several accounts, the meeting attendees included County Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz, City Council members Jim Lienhoop and County Council members Jorge Morales and Evelyn Pence. There were also Schumaker, the Columbus businessman who has been in the forefront of numerous community projects, and some other civic leaders.

The rumors about the meeting were rife with information. Actually, there was quite a bit of misinformation thrown into the mix, according to those who were there. One pre-meeting caller reported that the purpose of the early morning (7:30 a.m.) session was to “discuss ways to get rid of (Columbus) Mayor (Kristen) Brown.”

A post-meeting emailer notified those on his mailing list that the subject matter expanded into a discussion of uni-gov — the consolidation of city and county governments popularized in Indianapolis.

Some of those at the meeting have thrown cold water on both premises.

“This was really an attempt to bring representatives of the city and county together to see if there might be ways that they can work together,” said the meeting’s host. “Since there are some new members on both councils, it was almost like a get-acquainted session.”

Lienhoop concurred with that assessment, saying in an email to his fellow council members and Brown that “a few of us from City Council met this morning with some of our counterparts from the county. The purpose of the meeting was to get to know one another better (relationship and rapport building) and to discuss how the city and county might find opportunities to

collaborate.”

The informal get-together — how else do you describe a gathering in somebody’s garage? — is not exactly new.

“These kind of get-togethers have been going on for years,” Schumaker said. “It’s been a way for leaders in both the public and private sectors to discuss ways to improve the community.”

And that’s how the misinformation about uni-gov came about.

“I recall that there was some discussion years ago about how uni-gov had been adopted in Marion County and whether something similar could be adopted here,” he said. “In the end, nothing came of it.”

Nevertheless, the rumors of the secret meeting have taken on a life of their own to the point that Lienhoop’s fellow City Council member Tim Shuffett sent an email to his colleagues informing them that he hadn’t been invited to the meeting but that he would “encourage a partnership and cooperation between the city and county and think it is a great idea to work together.”

Lienhoop also questioned the use of the word “secret” to describe the session.

“When I was invited to this meeting, I was not under any impression that it would be secret,” he said. “The fact that it’s a rather widely known event more or less confirms to me that there was no secrecy intended. Had that been the intention, surely we’d have been able to maintain secret status for at least 24 hours.”

Frank Jerome, another non-invited City Council member, thought the garage meeting was a bad idea and that there are other venues for government officials to work together in sessions not open to the public. He said the elected officials at the garage meeting apparently didn’t violate any provisions of Indiana’s Open Door laws since there were not enough from any of the governing boards present to constitute a quorum.

“However, in situations like this, perceptions can easily become reality,” he said. “Transparency is important. These kind of informal conversations can be conducted in caucus meetings where participants can freely express their opinions.”

In some respects, this tempest about a meeting involving public officials is rooted in local history. To be blunt, it’s how things have been accomplished in Columbus for decades.

The philosophy relates to the partnership between the city’s public and private sectors that has existed at least since the mid-20th century. It was often manifest in broad undertakings to improve various facets of community life.

Think Redevelopment I and Redevelopment II, Focus 2000, Vision 20/20, Streetscape, Foundation for Youth expansion, Mill Race Park I and II, and the People Trails, just to scratch the tip of the iceberg.

Each of these long-range projects and others involved commitments from those in the public and private sectors. Few, if any, would have come to fruition had one sector gone it alone.

The projects weren’t undertaken in secrecy. Each of them featured innumerable public forums at which the community was either briefed on what was happening or solicited for opinions on what direction the project would take.

But there were also a number of non-public meetings at which small core groups discussed the projects. Government officials or their representatives were involved, but so far as I’ve known throughout the years, few, if any, constituted an official gathering at which a quorum was present.

Just as the informal meetings have been going on for years, so have rumors about what transpired.

“One of the difficulties we encounter in public service is the conspiracy theorists who simply won’t accept that nothing sinister is afoot,” Lienhoop said. “They are invariably drawn back to the grassy knoll. The kind of meeting we had is analogous to what I see in the business world all the time. In business we call them conferences, meet and greets, lunch and learns and, occasionally, golf outings. They are opportunities to better understand those with whom we work. I’ve found that kind of relationship building very helpful over the years and so, when invited by Hutch and Jorge, I readily

accepted.”

While the current movement to transparency in government appears to be building, it also opens up some tricky questions.

Schumaker posed one of those questions last week when he dropped in on the annual fish fry at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds hosted these past 52 years by former Columbus High School sports star Bob Welmer. Midway through the social hour the Columbus businessman found himself in a group that included three members of the County Council.

“I immediately warned everybody that if another council member joined the conversation, we’d be violating some law or another,” he said.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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