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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Sun shines on GOP selection committee in Boone County

By Tom Warhover
September 30, 2011 | 4:14 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Congratulations to the Boone County Republican Central Committee. It will deliberate — in public — on potential nominees to replace the late Ed Robb as presiding commissioner.

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"We want to do everything open and according to procedure," Tom Mendenhall said earlier this week.

You might think this is a dog-bites-man kind of statement. We expect our government to do business in the light of day. It's the people's business.

But there's never a guarantee that elected officials will act in the light. In the past couple of weeks, Missourian reporters have been forced to remind public bodies that, yes, citizens have a right to be at a meeting, and no, you can't tell a reporter not to print something. I'm proud of the way these young journalists have politely but firmly stood their ground.

I was worried that reporters would have a similar conflict with the Democratic and Republican central committees. We haven't heard the Democrats' plans. But I was wrong when it came to the GOP.

There was precedence for my anxiety. The last time a presiding commissioner was replaced because of a death in office, it took a restraining order to open the process.

In spring 1985, Boone County Presiding Commissioner Norma Robb — no relation to Ed Robb — died after a long illness. Both local parties fielded candidates and made their recommendations to then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican. He appointed the GOP nominee, Billie Tritschler.

Today the party roles are reversed. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon will have to appoint a new presiding commissioner after the sudden death of Ed Robb, a Republican. Boone County political parties can make nominations.

In 1985, early meetings among the Republicans were closed. (Democrats kept them open.) Finally, Missourian managing editor Brian Brooks got fed up and walked down to the courthouse with attorney Dale Spencer in tow.

"In effect, what this committee is doing is replacing an elected official," Brooks told the court, according to the yellowed Missourian clip. "To argue that such a process should be conducted by closed doors is absurd and an affront to the voters of Boone County."

The logic was simple: "If people seek public office, they should expect to undergo public scrutiny," Brooks said.

Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton issued a restraining order to the committee and its selection subcommittee. Rightly so. There's no doubt the party central committees are governmental bodies that should do their work in public. Their members — a committeeman and a committeewoman representing each of Boone County's nine townships and each municipal ward — are elected by us, the voters.

Brooks is now an associate dean at the Missouri School of Journalism, and we see each other often. He was fired up all over again as he told me of that conflict more than 25 years ago. Brooks didn't remember all the players — but he remembered clearly the principles he fought for.

I don't know whether the Boone County Republican Central Committee learned from precedent or just decided in favor of openness.

The result is what matters.

I imagine that a GOP nominee by a Democrat in the governor's mansion is less likely than a 13-year cicada coming to visit us next year. So the Boone County Democrats are the ones to watch.

I trust they'll know that we, the public, have a right to do just that.

After all: Good deeds are rarely done in the dark.

Update: Just 45 minutes after my letter was published online, reporter Hilary Niles stopped by my office to say the Democrats planned to deliberate in private.

Phyllis Fugit, chairwoman of the Democratic Party Central Committee, said she was under the impression that the group wasn’t subject to state Sunshine laws and that the issue would be exempt as a personnel issue anyway.

These are the same arguments made, unsuccessfully, 25 years ago.

Irony: Judge Hamilton, now retired, is a Democrat.

When Niles later reminded Fugit of the judge’s decision in that case, she sounded surprised. She said she would ask for a ruling from the state attorney general’s office next week.

“If it’s supposed to be open, it will be open,” she told Niles.