It’s our government, after all…
“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed.” American author and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner
Indeed, if more folks followed Faulkner’s advice, “transparency in government” wouldn’t just be a glib phrase, and smoky back room deals would be more the rarity than the norm in politics and government. It seems politicians stop believing in “transparency in government” as soon as they are elected. And as the Tucson case I discuss below proves, Democrats hate transparency in government as much as Republicans.
One test of “Transparency in government” is when citizens want to review public records—emails, letters and memos, calendar entries, etc.—generated by public employees and elected officials, who, like bureaucrats, are public employees. We, the taxpayers, pay their salaries. We are their bosses.
Democracy by checkbook…
Treating citizens as enemies, many states and municipalities limit the public’s ability to see what their government and their employees are up to through “Checkbook democracy.” That is, only those who can afford it can see public records. Some examples:
The most extreme is the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office, who told a news outlet it would cost $399,000 to provide emails sought in a public-records request. Kansas charged a newspaper $1,235 for records of emails between the Governor and a prominent lobbyist.
Mississippi charges an hourly fee for staff to retrieve and redact documents, including $15 an hour for an employee to sit and watch a citizen review documents. The Oregon State Police demanded $4,000 for 25 hours of staff time to prepare, review and redact public records the Associated Press requested.
Iowa’s Department of Corrections charged $2,020 to access reports on sexual violence against inmates. Virginia told the Associated Press it would need to pay about $500 in advance for access to the Governor’s daily calendar entries. Arizona is considering a bill that would charge $20 an hour to retrieve records requested by citizens.
Cities, counties, and states make the bogus claim that governmental agencies need to be reimbursed for the time employees spend maintaining and retrieving records and for government lawyers to redact documents and that litigation is expensive. The fact is that government employees are already paid to maintain records and serve the public and government lawyers are already paid to provide legal advice, which includes redacting documents that may contain legally protected information. Checkbook democracy amounts to double taxation. The simplest and cheapest way to deal with citizen requests for records is to actually practice transparency in government by providing the records when they’re asked for.
If all else fails, lie, “lose” the files and computers…
The City of Tucson’s strategy to keep the public in the dark is simply to lie and conveniently “lose” files. For over two years, the City of Tucson, governed by an all-Democratic Mayor and Council, has been denying access to public records involving a deal spearheaded by Councilmember Regina Romero and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild in which an historic municipal golf course adjacent to two Chicano barrios would be sold so as to open it up to development of a for-profit college campus and high-rise condos and industrial uses. A popular and affordable recreational venue for youth and families, the golf course is an environmental treasure, containing 700-plus trees and diverse wildlife and birdlife, and has a rich civil-rights history.
Besides replacing this great urban green space with asphalt and concrete heat islands, the proposed development would have destroyed the character of the two adjacent Chicano barrios. (I wrote about this in my June 16, 2013, blog, “Ol’ Yogi had it right…”) The El Rio Coalition II, comprised of over 22 organizations, succeeded in killing the deal and requested records related to the move to destroy the barrios. The City refused to release the records, and the coalition sued.
The City has militantly resisted releasing records. City workers dutifully gave key records to a City attorney for release. But, the City attorney conveniently “lost” the records. Another convenient coincidence: the computer that may have contained crucial information about the deal was reported “stolen” from the office of the City Council member at the heart of the situation. Notably, there was no forced entry into the council office, the alarm (which operates by a code) was not triggered, and only the one computer was “stolen.”
The judge who heard our case determined that the City (referenced as COT) lied. In a Ruling of May 16, 2014, the judge concluded that, “It is now clear that the July 8 (2013) representation (to the Court by the City) was not remotely accurate. In fact, the record supports the conclusion that COT either knew the representation was false, or knew its efforts in response to (the coalition’s) request were so inadequate it could not have had any confidence in the accuracy of the representation.”
The judge has several times ordered the City to turn over the requested records, but the City refuses to do so, incredibly claiming, among other things, that City bureaucrats and elected officials do not maintain appointment calendars or take notes at meetings.
Stand with your constituents…or with Joe Arpaio
In adopting the tactic of “losing” records and computers and lying in court, the Tucson Mayor and City Council have taken a page from the playbook of Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the most racist sheriff in America, who also claims to have “lost” records sought by citizens and orders his staff not to comply with court orders and whose deputies lied in open court by saying they do not stop brown people simply because they’re brown. A federal court has found that Arpaio and his gang do exactly that. One would think the all-Democratic Tucson Mayor and City Council would be mortified to be in Arpaio’s odious company.
There’s a reason elected officials do not want taxpayers to know what they do, and that reason is not good. Politicians can lie and get others to lie to us, but public documents don’t lie. They tell us who’s doing and saying what behind closed doors. I’ve focused on public records, but there are other tricks used by politicians to keep the public ignorant of what goes on behind closed doors.
For example, the Tucson Mayor and City Council do much business in secret “executive sessions,” which are closed to the public. By law no votes can be taken in executive session, but that’s no problem: when they come back out to public session they simply pass a motion instructing staff “to proceed as discussed (in executive session)”—which is exactly the same as having taken an illegal secret vote in executive session. Arizona’s newly-elected Republican governor, Doug Ducey, tried to do away with the sign-in log in his office, which documents whom the governor meets with.
Arpaio, the Tucson Mayor and City Council, Governor Ducey and others who want to keep the public in the dark count on citizens not challenging them, politically or legally. If we truly believe in transparency in government, that’s precisely what we must do. As Faulkner advises, we should never be afraid to raise our voice for honesty and truth and against lying and greed. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Sal Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: email@example.com
All photos used in this blog are in the public domain.