Friday, January 25, 2013

Drawing the line on transparency

There is a line in government, between information that is made public and information which is kept secret for many good and ethical reasons.

We think of that line as a vertical line separating on one side, the published truth and on the other, the unpublished published.  I use the word publish deliberately though not literally.  It is impractical for government to actually publish everything, but people who go looking for information should find that information as easy to find as if it were published.

The line on truth telling is actually a horizontal line, a continuum running from "published" to secret.  There is no vertical line that cleanly separates the one from the other.  In part, that is because honorable and honest people can disagree.  The real failure of open government is that the only provision for settling any dispute at all, lengthy litigation between individual citizens and the full weight of government and all of their lawyers, is unbearably cumbersome for individual citizens.  The remedy is effectively beyond the reach of common people.

In any case, there will always be a struggle between people wanting the truth and public servants wanting to hide it.  There will always be a push to the right; more truth available to more of the people more easily.  There will always be a push to the left; more ease in meetings in secret, more ease in secreting public records.

As it stands, the truth in the form of public records and public meetings, is under the control of politicians and public servants.  It is important to remember that the truth, the whole truth, belongs to the people regardless of their access to it.  We own the public truth and we own the secret truth.

As it stands, the truth belongs to pols and public servants.  If you want see, hear or watch it, you have to prove your right in court.

As it should be, the truth belongs to the people.  If a politician or public servant has a legitimate need for secrecy, they must prove that need in court.

As it stands, politicians and public servants are allowed to redact their own public record, the record of their public service.

As it should be, the law should both require and provide for the impartial redaction of  public records.  A due process in which the least powerful of us can stand against most powerful of our servants and they are afforded no undue influence over a principled resolution.

Despite the fact that I argue the prospect of endless struggle, there is an "effective" end.

There will come a day, when the law provides as much transparent accountability to the people, as it ever will provide.  Which begs a question; why isn't it today?

If the right time to do the right thing is always right now, then why is right now not the right time to write law as good as it will ever be?

A State Representative and a State Senator are co-sponsoring bills that will provide substantially more open government; HB21, link, HJR2, link.  One provides more notice for meetings, the other moves school board, school bond, and school mill levy elections to November.  This election could be the last APS school board, mill levy and bond issue elections settled by a handful of voters.

The one is a Republican, the other a Democrat; the one a veteran in the legislature, the other a newbie to the Office, a longtime veteran in the Roundhouse.  They're working together on our behalf.

The one, Rep Jim Smith, the other, Sen Daniel Ivey-Soto.

Maybe things aren't so bad after all.

photo Mark Bralley

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