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What you don’t see is what you get

It’s funny how becoming a politician often changes a person’s perspective on government transparency.

I say “funny” because all of the other adjectives I considered using were extremely inflammatory — absurd, hypocritical and disgraceful would describe the transformation as well.

Just about every candidate for public office, no matter which party they belong to, will tell you during the campaign season that they believe government should be more open, accessible and accountable to the people.

They carry on that way for one of three reasons: It’s what voters want to hear, it sounds easy to accomplish and, in many cases, the candidates for office have no flippin’ idea what full transparency means.

Trust me on that last point. I just read more than 100 responses by legislative candidates to a question we posed regarding government transparency. We asked them: “What would you do to achieve more transparency in government, and should government officials be in charge of managing those efforts?”

A handful of the responses were right on: Some candidates suggested technological solutions, such as online video of all meetings attended by government officials, while others wanted all subcommittee hearings and budget negotiations to be open to the media and the public.

Other responses were odd and unproductive. One candidate simply stated that “the whole system is corrupt.” Another suggested passing a law to require public disclosure of donations to candidates and ballot propositions — even though that’s already required under state and federal election laws.

But most disturbing was the trend of incumbent lawmakers who noted that they believe Arizona is already doing an adequate job of making government accessible and accountable. A few of them even reasoned that some stuff — I would describe it as the most enlightening, honest and vivid stuff — really does need to be kept hidden from the public.

I’m going to make a wild assumption and say that most Arizonans completely disagree with any argument that supposes government officials have a right to sequester themselves for the sake of avoiding public scrutiny.

But when citizens become politicians, many of them undergo a deep philosophical metamorphosis regarding the public’s access to things such as budget negotiations, e-mails that are sent on government-owned computers, and any document that may make them look bad if released to the masses.

At some point they start to see government from the inside, and they become part of the political machine that was so easy to attack when they were on the outside. And, due to self-interest and self-preservation, many of them are enlightened to the benefits of government secrecy.

They make arguments from an insider’s perspective that make perfect sense — if practicality and efficiency are considered the two top priorities for a democratic government. They say nothing would get accomplished at the Legislature and lawmakers would hesitate to dig deep into the issues if the public really did get a chance to watch their elected officials struggle to hash out the details of legislation before they emerge on the floor to do the dance and cast their votes.

Right now, a stunning amount of important business in the Arizona Legislature gets glossed over in committee hearings and during floor votes because lawmakers have already vetted their proposals, leadership has already counted up the votes, and the most revealing debates have already occurred.

What the public sees is simply a formality.

For the past several years, lawmakers have worked privately and in cliques to draft budget plans, which are kept confidential for weeks and months before finally giving the extremely complex document to the public just days before the final vote. In some cases, lawmakers passed budget bills that were never debated in public.

The public rarely gets to see lawmakers in the raw, being (gasp) totally honest and mostly unguarded.

Here comes the most hypocritical part: The Legislature passed a law a few years ago that requires local governments across the state to make sure citizens are given advance notice of all official meetings, to open those meetings to the public and to restrict local elected officials from meeting as a group in secret. But the Legislature exempted itself from the law, just like Congress exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act.

Those who make the argument that the Legislature needs a certain amount of privacy to achieve results say the charade that takes place during public meetings is an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary political function. They argue it’s more efficient that way, and that the final vote is really all the public needs to see.

J.D. Mesnard, a candidate for the House in Legislative District 21, drew this comparison to explain his position that some things are better left in private: “Even our founding fathers, during the deliberations at the Philadelphia Convention that led to the establishment of our Constitution, would at times lock the doors — and even nail the windows shut — to the public and the press.”

Mesnard’s philosophy cannot be attributed to incumbency, but he is an insider. He spent seven years as a policy adviser in the state Senate, and he knows exactly what goes on in those private meetings.

He also knows, because he is a politically astute, that the founding fathers acted in secret when they drafted the Constitution because they were, in fact, completing the act of overthrowing the English colonial government.

Risk of death seems like a pretty legitimate excuse for privacy, although I could argue against it just as easily. But that situation is hardly comparable to state budget negotiations regarding spending reductions for programs such as public schools.

For Mesnard, though, it’s not a matter of trying to keep everything secret. He wants the public to have access to information — just not to everything that I believe it’s entitled to.

He and I also disagree when it comes to the priorities of a democratic government. He ranks efficiency above full disclosure, and he believes there is value in allowing public officials, at times, “to be free from the outside pressure from the public.”

Yet, I would rather be governed by an inefficient process that includes honest debate, full public participation and an unobstructed view of our elected officials.

The Constitution paid no mind to efficiency in the legislative process, but it did stipulate that the public is entitled to an all-access pass to its government.

— Matt Bunk is managing editor of the Arizona Capitol Times.

One comment

  1. “He also knows, because he is a politically astute, that the founding fathers acted in secret when they drafted the Constitution because they were, in fact, overthrowing the ENGLISH government.”

    Um, that would be “overthrowing the AMERICAN government.”

    The Constitution was drafted years after the War of Independence ended, because it had become clear that the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to sustain itself.

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