as published in the Blytheville Courier News on Thursday, July 30, 2015
By TOM HENRY
Patriot Patrick Henry once said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Thomas Paine also added, “It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government.” Those wise words have never been more true that they are today.
These ideas are self-evident in the case of government scandals such as Watergate, congressional corruption, bribery, contract rigging and cronyism. But, these ideas are far less universally embraced in the course of regular day-to-day governing and governmental functioning at the local level. I argue that it is absolutely just as important to have freedom of information in those events, as it is when a scandal erupts large enough to find itself on network nightly news and the front page of the national newspapers – perhaps even more so.
The reason is because every public official and governmental worker recognizes that it is morally and legally wrong to illegally arrange contracts, accept a bribe, or abuse an inmate. However, on the small town local level, if government is not open and transparent by default, and if checks and balances such as the press or constituent inquiry are not allowed to function, then the lines become blurred and questionable actions become standard operating procedure simply because the boss said so. When is it an emergency that allows for rules to be suspended? When is it okay to deny the media the names, ages or charges of persons charged with a crime? When is it okay to declare an emergency and avoid accepting bids for a project? What internal office documents are public information and which ones are privileged? These are the more difficult decisions that require the most vigilant effort. Saving one’s job or the game of perpetual campaigning does not trump the public’s right to know.
It is specifically for these reasons that our founding fathers demanded that our nation include a freedom of the press in our U.S. Constitution. Additionally, Arkansas legislators have further codified these protections of the press and demand open transparent government by creating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). So, open government is not merely a good suggestion by a bunch of dead guys from the 18th century, its the law today.
The FOIA’s “legislative intent” states, “It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy. Toward this end, this chapter is adopted, making it possible for them, or their representatives to learn and to report fully the activities of their public officials.”
I am fully aware that the average employee of Arkansas entities such as local cities, towns, departments, law enforcement agencies, court clerk offices, water departments, hospitals, and schools are not constitutional scholars up to date on all facets of the very latest court rulings and opinion. No one expects them to be, but they are public servants and they hold positions of trust given them by the good voting public. It is for that reason that the culture of each of these offices should lean toward disclosure by default and it should be exceptional when information is not given.
One cure for this problem would be if our public officials do not require that all information flow through just open mouthpiece. There are times when the “designated mouthpiece” is not available or are not close enough to the process to be fully informed of the details. Surely, there is a place for spokespersons, but all public officials should be fair game for questioning related to the performance of their jobs. Another cure for the problem is to hold internal seminars on Arkansas’ Freedom of Information laws.
This essay is absolutely not directed at any one person or entity. It is, however, designed to challenge all public officials and those that work for them to self examine whether or not open, transparent government is being practiced. I’m sure that most of the time it is, but even this relatively new reporter has seen examples at various levels of government where it has been less so. Those cases of questionable openness seem to be based upon either a lack of knowledge of what is public information and what is privileged information. While at other times it is a matter of a public official perceiving his/her office as their own personal fiefdom. The day of feudal lords are long gone and with good reason.
After all Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,”