With the dawning of a new year comes a new opportunity for Columbia County commissioners to err on the side of openness.
It's not our intention to raise any more issues with the ongoing drama from this past year involving County Commissioner Scott Dean. But there is a specific problem that commissioners can, and must, resolve:
Specifically, they must end the gray area of taxpayers paying for cell phone service for commissioners, yet not having access to messages on those phones.
On the whole, the Columbia County Commission has a solid record when it comes to openness. Reporters rarely have trouble accessing public information from the county government, the online access to documents and even video from meetings is easy.
There are loopholes, though. Commissioners studiously avoided getting a quorum last summer in a series of negotiations leading to a settlement of the Marshall Square lawsuit. Though entirely legal, it still strikes many as underhanded.
The Dean saga raised a tougher issue. When it was discovered that Dean had exchanged questionable text messages with a county employee, the media sought access to those messages as public information. Dean insisted the texts were his personal property and refused to divulge them, and the newspaper's attorney agreed he was right.
Yet the public pays for Dean's phone with a $125 per month allowance to commissioners. Technically, it is his phone - but taxpayers pay for him to use it. That must change.
Commissioners can, and should, immediately clear up this gray area. The fix is easy: If commissioners want to claim their phones are personal property and all the messages on them are private, let them pay the bill. But if commissioners accept reimbursement, they should agree that phone records and texts are public information. That goes for county employees, too.
As we mentioned, the county government has a good record when it comes to openness. They shouldn't spoil it by allowing this loophole to survive the new year.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.