Copyright 2002, Traffic World Magazine
The railroad industry roundtable discussion hosted by the Federal Railroad Administration (see story, this page) was closed to the public and "off the record," the FRA explained, so that participants would feel they could speak more openly.
"The aim of the roundtable is to encourage participants to step outside their customary roles and engage in an open exchange of thoughts on where the rail freight industry is headed," according to a letter to invitees. "In this context, it would not be appropriate either to create a record of the discussions or to attribute concepts discussed to particular individuals or their organizations. Our objective is the mutual edification of the roundtable participants, as well as the leadership of the FRA and the STB."
Some wondered, however, if this was in violation of federal sunshine laws, which stipulate the context under which government agencies can hold closed meetings. "There was no legal requirement to open this meeting given that it's a one-time deal," said FRA spokesman Rob Gould. "It wasn't on the record and no official notes were to be taken and no takeaways. That's literally what (Rutter) wanted it to be. We wanted a small number that would keep it manageable, and be able to pick their brains and to get a sense from a variety of sources where they see the industry today and where it's headed."
STB spokesman Dennis Watson said that Surface Transportation Board Chairman Linda Morgan's attendance at the discussion was "contingent on there being no pending matters discussed," and that the meeting would "focus on broad policy issues." As such, he said, "the sunshine laws don't apply." Because Vice Chairman Wayne Burkes also attended the meeting, "that was another reason pending matters" before the board couldn't be discussed, Watson said.
Holding closed meetings has been an issue with the STB in the past, most notably as it pertained to meetings of the STB's Railroad Shipper Transportation Advisory Council. In regard to those, Morgan has said that STB members may participate in closed-door policy discussions if they are not deliberating "on official agency business" and the meetings "don't determine or result in the conduct or disposition of official agency business."
Although it didn't believe the FRA violated federal sunshine laws, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press thought the agency's reasoning didn't make sense. "It seems to me the more eyes you have on the problem the better," said RCFP official Rebecca Doherty. "It certainly doesn't seem like something that justifies keeping the public out. It's not tabloid material. It's information that's going to be of interest to people in the industry. Keeping information away from people who are able to contribute to the discussion - by letter or phone calls or simply knowing what the government was considering - is (a violation of) the spirit of what the sunshine act tries to prevent, even if not a violation of the letter of the law."