By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008
For the first time in its 162 years, the Smithsonian Board of Regents is going public.
The governing board of the Smithsonian's empire of museums and research facilities, which has conducted its business far from public view, is breaking with that policy Monday by holding a two-hour meeting, open to the public at Baird Auditorium in the National Museum of Natural History.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is the chancellor of the regents, is scheduled to conduct the forum, as he has done behind closed doors. Most of the 15 active board members are expected to attend, including the six members of Congress. Roberts, as well as Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and Roger W. Sant, the regents' chair, are scheduled to speak.
The move is part of an exhaustive revision made by the regents to work for more transparency and open themselves up to a broader accountability. The regents admitted at a congressional hearing that their oversight was faulty when problems regarding unauthorized expenses came up during former secretary Lawrence Small's tenure. That crisis prompted an overhaul of how they do business and how they are organized, as well as revised travel and leave polices and an updated Code of Ethics for all employees.
"As we went through our government reforms, we decided there has got to be a time when we are available to the public to make comments. We decided to have a time each year when the public has its say and we can receive criticism and suggestions," said Sant, who is chairman emeritus of the energy firm AES Corp. and the outgoing regents chairman.
Most of the group's business will still be conducted in private. In the morning the regents will have their usual board meeting, which follows a series of committee meetings. One issue on the morning agenda is the hit that Smithsonian investments have taken in the turbulent financial markets, which Sant said this week are "down somewhere in the 25 percent range." In September, the Smithsonian endowment was estimated at approximately $1 billion.
"We expect private contributions to be less. We expect the federal budget to be hit. And we will be getting reports on that in the morning," Sant said. "We are already in a conservative mode. We already have a hiring freeze, and we realize the daunting conditions facing us."
Sant said the regents, who expanded business meetings to include congressional liaisons and staff people, decided to have only one open meeting a year out of its four full for efficiency's sake. "We decided we couldn't have deliberations if we had only public meetings," he said. "We decided the business is probably not what people come for. We decided that the public would be more interested in the discussion of their suggestions."
Given the meeting's scheduled time -- 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. -- it's unclear how much of the public will be able to attend. Sant said the afternoon time was a concern: "Hopefully there will be a number of people from the public. We haven't done it before so you don't know what to expect. If it is all staff, we know we will have to get the public more involved."
The Smithsonian bought newspaper ads inviting the public to the meeting. The ads said subjects would include "How can the Smithsonian better serve a changing U.S. population and attract more diverse audiences?" and "What are some ways the Smithsonian can increase revenue and better use its limited resources to serve the public?" People were encouraged to send in questions, and the panel plans to take questions from the floor.
Sant said the only constraint is that the questions relate to the Smithsonian. "The chief justice will not be answering questions about cases before the Supreme Court," Sant said. "The chief justice is excited about the meeting; he's not dreading it. This is something he is good at."
Patrice McDermott, director of Openthegovernment.org, was enthusiastic but cautious about the public meeting, calling it "an important step forward." The long-term impact depends "on whether the board sees this as a pro forma thing," said McDermott, a participant in recent meetings at the Smithsonian about how the museum should apply the Freedom of Information Act.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has been calling for increased openness at the Smithsonian. Grassley applauded the move in a statement that also cautioned: "This is just one meeting. Despite serious executive scandals, and pledges to act more transparently and regain the public's trust, the Smithsonian still conducts most of its business behind closed doors."
The regents, established in the 1846 legislation that created the institution, generally have oversight of all Smithsonian business. They approve the top appointments, any additions of new museums and facilities and donations to the Smithsonian. The federal portion of the budget is approved by Congress.
They have rarely appeared as a group. One rare exception was a lineup of the regents behind then-Secretary I. Michael Heyman when he announced major changes in the controversial exhibition of the Enola Gay in 1995. Installations of the new secretaries by the chief justice are usually open events.