WASHINGTON - The U.S. space program and the municipal bond market have a little something in common.
Twenty-five years ago last week Neil A. Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the surface of the moon when he uttered the now famous phrase, "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Today the Municipal Securities Remaking Board is expected to take a step, albeit a small one, that is as relevant to the history of the regulation of the municipal bond market as Armstrong's step was to the space program.
The MSRB is expected to announce that it has changed its nearly 20-year-old closed-door meeting policy and will open at least some of its deliberations to the public and provide more information about future plans.
During a three-day meeting in California last week that extended through Friday, the MSRB was expected to decide whether to partially open at least one of its four quarterly meetings each year and to publish its agenda before each board meeting.
It also was expected to decide whether to meet regularly with issuers and other market participants to spell out its short- and long-term agendas and whether to conduct regular regional meetings with dealers.
Those steps, if the MSRB actually takes them, do not constitute a full program of government in the sunshine, but they do represent an historic and significant step in the right direction.
The MSRB's expected moves should go a long way toward muting justifiable criticism that has been leveled at the board for more than 15 years, ranging from dealers who complained about the board's secretive policies in the late 1970s to today when many issuers are up in arms over the board's closed-door meetings on disclosure proposals that affect them.
Although the MSRB eventually should adopt a policy of routinely holding open meetings, starting small makes sense so the board can develop a workable system that allows significant input from market participants without bogging down the board.
One important issue the board must decide is whether to permit questions or comments from the audience. That's a tough decision. If the audience is allowed to interrupt, meetings that usually take hours could take weeks. However, the overall purpose might be served if a block of time were reserved during the meeting for questions and answers.
Whatever the MSRB does, however, it should avoid the Securities and Exchange Commission's meetings policy, which often borders on a sham.
While the SEC holds many of its meetings in public, much of the discussion by the commissioners and their staffs appears to have been carefully scripted and the commission's final decisions often appear to have been made behind closed doors days before.
If the MSRB takes this small step to open its deliberations, it will be a giant leap for the municipal market.