In celebration of near unanimity among American politicians of all stripes, let us today note how promises of “open government” proclaimed by political candidates right and left die once they are elected.
This sometimes seems to be one of the few things nearly all politicians have left in common aside from factual distortions.
One could almost be left wondering if there’s an official timetable dictating that support for “open government” is required to terminate X-days after election, be the “X” measured in days, weeks or months.
I don’t know. I’ve never been elected. So I lack access to the secret codebook.
All that is evident to an outside observer is that politicians regularly bow to the holiness of open government, and then nearly all turn their backs on it once elected.
Have you ever heard of an honest candidate running on a platform stating “I think the electorate is comprised of a bunch of dumbasses, and when I’m elected I’m going to see to it that we don’t tell them a damn thing? All their knowledge of affairs does is muddy up the important business of running government.”
OK, so maybe Donald Trump. Could that be what attracted some of his supporters:
“Hey, our guy lies a lot, but he doesn’t pitch that same, old trite lie about wanting open government.”
You know, that little fib so many tell about supporting the doctrine that Wikimedia defines as ensuring “that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight.”
The Anchorage Assembly bunker
The latest demonstration of this behavior involves a story the Anchorage Daily News headlined this way:
Kind of makes you wonder if the newspaper thinks the vote would have been different if a “supporter” had asked for the same emails with plans to make them widely public. Does anyone think anything would change if a supporter asked tomorrow instead of a detractor?
Well, anything other than the definition of supporter.
This is clearly one of those Catch-22 situations where if you ask for release of public information, you automatically enter the detractor category. And thus the e-mails can never be released because only detractors want to see them.
Which was a good defense for political leaders living in the old and now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)? In a democracy, whose asking should be wholly irrelevant. Public information is public information.
And by all indications, this request in Anchorage is for public information despite the dancing members of the Anchorage Assembly have engaged in to make it appear otherwise. Consider the show put on by Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant:
“Constant argued that attorney-client and work product privileges mean it’s difficult to prove that nothing nefarious exists within the redacted records.
”’That’s why it’s such a good whipping post for folks in these right-wing blogs, because they could say anything. They could say it’s anything and then it can’t be controverted because that privilege exists,’ Constant said.”
Note to Assemblyman Constant: The attorney-client privilege only applies to attorneys. Clients are under no obligation to keep quiet about anything.
If there’s nothing nefarious going on and you want to make liars of those right-wing bloggers suggesting there is, there’s nothing to stop you from releasing your emails to prove that you, at least, are not involved in any nefarious dealings.
This might make some of your fellow assembly members mad, of course. And given that the Assembly at times now seems to be operating more like a little cabal than an elected government, they might even vote to sanction you.
But wouldn’t that be something of a badge of honor?
A true open-government warrior
On the next election cycle, you could actually run as a politician who stood up for “the public’s right to know” even though it outraged your friendly fellow pols. How many political candidates can claim that distinction?
I can’t think of any.
Yeah, I know, this might require a little bravery and bravery is rare, especially in politics in this country. It used to be slightly more common in journalism, but it is becoming rare there now, too.
The ADN was once a big supporter of the public’s right to know. In the past, it regularly went to court when politicians did what the assembly is doing now. The last time was in 2014, when the newspaper was temporarily named the Alaska Dispatch News, and then Gov. Sean Parnell was withholding Alaska National Guard records for “privacy reasons.”
The issue at that time involved reports of sexual assaults, sexual and general harassment, fraud, favoritism and abuse of power within the Guard, and the Parnell administration said it was trying to protect the victims of any and all of that.
This was a way better argument for concealing records than the risk of the public getting a look at the behind-the-scenes “work product” of politicians scheming to write laws. And the ADN went to court anyway because it believed the public’s right to know outweighed any privacy concerns.
That the suit also helped gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker, a good buddy of then ADN publisher Alice Rogoff, in his bid to unseat Parnell probably didn’t hurt either, but it was journalists pushing Rogoff more than Rogoff pushing journalists that led to the filing of the lawsuit.
It resulted in the release of most of the requested records as has been the result in most public records lawsuits filed in the state. The state has a pretty good law designed to protect open government, and Alaska judges have been good in seeing to it that the law is applied.
The problem is and has been with all the open-government candidates for office who become closed-government officials once elected.
Parnell was and is a Republican. Constant is a Democrat. But on the open government issue, they’ve proven birds of a feather.
There is a rule that seems to apply to all politicians here: Open government is good when someone else is in power, and bad once you’re elected.
Walker was a big supporter of open government before he got elected, too. And after?
Well, suffice to say his bid for re-election blew up when he refused to say anything about what kind of sexual shenanigans led him to asked former and late Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott to resign from his post. In the moment of “Me Too,” this was a little too much for Alaska voters to tolerate, and Walker, seeing the mess he’d created for himself, decided at the last minute to withdraw from the election to avoid certain defeat.
It’s sad to see pols act this way.
Clear the air
So I have an offer to make to Assemblyman Constant:
Send me your e-mails, and I’ll parse them to see if there’s anything there that it would hurt the public to know, and release what it’s OK for them to find out. I have no axe to grind here. I’m neither a righty nor a lefty.
I once worked for former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat. I once offered political advice to a state Senate Majority controlled by Republicans. I probably have more friends who are Democrats than who are Republicans, but I make a point of not using political affiliations to judge any of them.
I can honestly say, as well, that I’ve never met a politician I didn’t like. Being likable people is, after all, their stock in trade.
That said, I’ve also never met a politician I’d trust in a pinch for the simple reason that they are politicians. They live or die by garnering enough votes to stay in office, and thus they are always assessing the political winds and making the sorts of adjustments in the sails any sailor would make to keep the boat on course to its next port.
And for a politician, the next port is always named Re-election.
It’s hard for me to hold this against any of them. They are almost always of the belief that it’s hard to change the course of government unless you are part of the government. They might even be right about that.
None of which should free any of them from the responsibility of trying to do as much of the public’s business as possible in public, not as little.
And in this vein, I offer a hand of support to Assemblyman Constant.
Obviously, he can’t do anything to help his fellow assembly members defend themselves against right-wing blogs, left-wing blogs, mainstream media, or average citizens guessing at what is in secret emails. But he can certainly clear himself of the idea there is something nefarious in his emails – if, of course, there is nothing nefarious.
Just forward them all over to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can put this all to rest.
The only dog I have in this hunt is the public’s right to know. I have no political affiliation. I don’t even vote because I don’t think journalists should.
The evidence from various psychological studies pretty well documents how picking a party or a candidate can mess up one’s objectivity even when he or she doesn’t want it to, and it’s hard enough trying to be objective without adding this problem to the mix, especially in these times.
I’ll be happy to read through your emails and decide if there’s anything in there it would be dangerous for the public to know, redact it and release the rest. And if there’s some “work product” in there that demonstrates how government bakes the cake, wouldn’t it be good for the public to actually know how this works?
Cooking shows being the rage these days, this might even lead some people to pay more attention to local government, and that’s never a bad thing, is it?