Legislation by loophole is a violation of the public trust

Some big corporate fat cat finds loopholes in the tax code and pays virtually no income taxes despite making millions and living a lavish lifestyle.

A successful high-profile hedge fund manager finds ways to benefit from proprietary information and grow personal investments without technically being guilty of insider trading.

A large commercial developer knows all the strings to pull and buttons to push to get permits to do work without the same kind of scrutiny that an individual builder finds constraining and sometimes prohibitive.

Or, a flimflam artist finds ways to bilk state and federal public assistance programs for tens of thousands of dollars, qualifying for benefits by being a little less than honest, but can’t really be convicted of illegality.

None of them have really violated the law.

They operate on the fringes.

They benefit from loopholes.

So, how do we feel about these things?

Largely, we do not think they should be rewarded for their ingenuity, craftiness and deceit.

Rather, most common, ordinary people feel violated.

And, we should.

When people look for loopholes in the law, their obvious intent is to get by with as much as they possibly can without going to jail.

When elected officials legislate by loophole while it may not technically constitute a violation of the law, it absolutely violates the public trust.

It is not exactly a secret that city and county officials use technicalities and loopholes to get around the state’s Open Meetings Act.

When attorneys instruct their clients on how to deliberate the public’s business in private without technically violating the Sunshine Law, it is obvious there is a total disregard for the public’s right to know.

What is commonly known among elected officials as the 3-on-3, is not illegal — it’s just wrong.

The Open Meetings Act basically requires that any time a quorum of any elected body meets then it constitutes a legal meeting, that must be open to public following an adequate public notice.

So, civic lawyers have interpreted that to mean that any number less than a quorum — three members of a body that requires four to make a quorum for example — can meet and deliberate all they want.

What transpires, then, actually becomes a bit of a game, or at least a tactic, that elected officials use to circumvent the public notice and public meeting requirements.

It amounts to vote-getting.

While officials think they are being clever, they are actually being dishonest and disingenuous.

Citizens have every right to know everything their elected government is doing and why they are doing it.

It is not enough to merely vote on every piece of legislation in public.

Deliberations should lake place before the public as well, whether it is at a public work session or in the regular meeting itself.

When a city council, county commission or board of education comes to a meeting, someone makes a motion, another makes a second, then they vote on some significant piece of business with no discussion, no description, no debate, it is obvious they are practicing loophole legislation.

Why even look for loopholes in the law if everything you are doing is on the up and up?

— Transparency Project of Georgia Director  James Zachary

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2 thoughts on “Legislation by loophole is a violation of the public trust

  1. As a journalist and publisher of a hyperlocal web site in Paulding county (and former local newspaper writer, reporter and editor) I have to say this is has happened so often for so long it is almost tradition.

    It happened because we in the press, let it happen. Part of this came from the individual actions of reporters and yes, publishers, who didn’t call these folks on their skirting of the law. Instead we adapted.

    How? We worked our beats, read agendas closely and talked to the people – county or city staffs – and figured out what was transpiring.

    The big difference today is that the ranks of reporters have dwindled. With fewer reporters, each one is charged with producing more content truncating the time that can be spent cultivating sources. When you don’t have the time to do the legwork required to work the beats and establish the relationships needed to get inside the bureaucracies, the traditional system of digging to find what is behind the news suffers.

    Still, the tradition of cat and mouse continues and with fewer cats, those in local government become even more bold. Some might say they’ve gotten so big and fat they’re more like rats as the ecology of local news has changed. Fewer cats; more mice.

    Changing this tradition is not going to be easy.

    A good first step is to change another tradition, which actually goes back even further in time in county government. The reality is that going back to the 30’s and 40’s, many Georgia counties were run by a county ordinary – or sole commissioner. As the sole commissioner, this individual combined executive and county legislative powers into one person. You’d have to get in the guy’s head to have an open meeting.

    Yes, this individual could propose a county ordinance, enact it by edict with the only check on that power being the sheriff’s willingness to enforce this new ‘law’.

    The vestige of this sole-commissioner system is that even these days commission chairmen can put an item on the agenda for a 10 am Tuesday work session on Friday at 5 p.m., talk about it (a little or a lot) at the work session and pass the item at the 2 p.m. session. A weekly newspaper is left at most reporting the passage of a new ordinance Tuesday afternoon in the following Thursday’s newspaper.

    I’m actually running for a Post position in Paulding County, Georgia’s 14th largest county. One key effort if I’m elected is to change this tradition of slam, bam thank you mam law making by requiring every ordinance, every purchase, every action to lay on the table a minimum of two weeks before passage. Of course there would be the option of an emergency measure but the presumption would be that government needs to be deliberate and deliberative.

    The challenge of open meeting laws are to foster deliberation and discussion. While I’m keen on this issue of the open meetings law, the real purpose is to give folks an opportunity to bring the collective wisdom to the issues. That takes time.

    I think the key to injecting time into process, is to force issues to lay on the table for at least two weeks; possibly as long as a month, before it is possible to effect passage into law or ordinance.

    A state law requiring this delay – this type of delay does (or has) existed in local governments in Georgia in the past. It need to become the rule.

    G. Patton Hughes

  2. As a journalist and publisher of a hyperlocal web site in Paulding county (and former local newspaper writer, reporter and editor) I have to say this is has happened so often for so long it is almost tradition.

    It happened because we in the press, let it happen. Part of this came from the individual actions of reporters and yes, publishers, who didn’t call these folks on their skirting of the law. Instead we adapted.

    How? We worked our beats, read agendas closely and talked to the people – county or city staffs – and figured out what was transpiring.

    The big difference today is that the ranks of reporters have dwindled. With fewer reporters, each one is charged with producing more content truncating the time that can be spent cultivating sources. When you don’t have the time to do the legwork required to work the beats and establish the relationships needed to get inside the bureaucracies, the traditional system of digging to find what is behind the news suffers.

    Still, the tradition of cat and mouse continues and with fewer cats, those in local government become even more bold. Some might say they’ve gotten so big and fat they’re more like rats as the ecology of local news has changed. Fewer cats; more mice.

    Changing this tradition is not going to be easy.

    A good first step is to change another tradition, which actually goes back even further in time in county government. The reality is that going back to the 30′s and 40′s, many Georgia counties were run by a county ordinary – or sole commissioner. As the sole commissioner, this individual combined executive and county legislative powers into one person. You’d have to get in the guy’s head to have an open meeting.

    Yes, this individual could propose a county ordinance, enact it by edict with the only check on that power being the sheriff’s willingness to enforce this new ‘law’.

    The vestige of this sole-commissioner system is that even these days commission chairmen can put an item on the agenda for a 10 am Tuesday work session on Friday at 5 p.m., talk about it (a little or a lot) at the work session and pass the item at the 2 p.m. session. A weekly newspaper is left at most reporting the passage of a new ordinance Tuesday afternoon in the following Thursday’s newspaper.

    I’m actually running for a Post position in Paulding County, Georgia’s 14th largest county. One key effort if I’m elected is to change this tradition of slam, bam thank you mam law making by requiring every ordinance, every purchase, every action to lay on the table a minimum of two weeks before passage. Of course there would be the option of an emergency measure but the presumption would be that government needs to be deliberate and deliberative.

    The challenge of open meeting laws are to foster deliberation and discussion. While I’m keen on this issue of the open meetings law, the real purpose is to give folks an opportunity to bring the collective wisdom to the issues. That takes time.

    I think the key to injecting time into process, is to force issues to lay on the table for at least two weeks; possibly as long as a month, before it is possible to effect passage into law or ordinance.

    A state law requiring this delay – this type of delay does (or has) existed in local governments in Georgia in the past. It need to become the rule.

    G. Patton Hughes

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