Monday, October 22, 2007

Let the Sunshine Shine

When it comes to government, even in a drought, sunshine is a necessity.

Over the years, I've noticed that even very good people who seek office for all the right reasons can, once elected, begin to view their constituents as irritants to be pacified, discounted or intimidated and Sunshine Laws a barrier to getting business done. Public hearings, too, are often viewed as a boring exercise for experts (them) whose minds are already made up.

It's true that elected officials, especially those at the local level, spend quite a bit of their time responding to unrealistic demands of their too often ill-informed constituents. Phones ring at all hours of the day and night. Emails are not always civil. Serving on local boards of education, county commission and city council can be downright tiresome, thankless, unpleasant jobs. As a result, sometimes elected officials become most loyal, not to their constituents, but, instead to their fellow elected officials. After all, those are the relationships they must maintain if they hope "to get anything done." It's understandable, sure. But it's not okay.

Dictatorships are nice, neat governments where decisions can be made quickly without the lens of public scrutiny. But, our form of government, born when colonists rose up, shed their blood and demanded a government by the people, is messy. Running for public office means accepting that, and, if elected, remaining responsive to the public.

When it comes to openness in government, the law defines the least that is expected of public bodies, not the most. Sure, it can be tempting for public officials to skirt the spirit, if not the letter, of the Sunshine Laws by doing things like calling together groups of electeds small enough to skirt the quorum threshold, by having "retreats" at remote locations, by failing to maintain records of meetings or by minimizing the content of minutes. It's understandable. Public involvement is messy. It's understandable, but it's not okay.
When elected officials do business this way, they miss the point of the Sunshine Laws-these laws do not exist merely to make sure the public has access to government but because the only way our government can work is if the public is actively involved. In the shadows, the good ol' boy network of politics and business too often collides with human nature and, without the sunshine, corruption grows. Citizens are not just allowed to be informed and involved; it is our duty.

For more on the importance of openness in government, check out The Georgia First Amendment Foundation.


Tina said...

Human interactions are always going to be sloppy systems, seemingly bumbling along, laden with emotion, and yet capable of creativity, new insights and self-correction. Thus these interactions are considered undesirable interruptions to those with a low tolerance for disagreement and ambiguity.

On the other hand, the law is NOT ambiguous. It clearly defends the right of the public to know what's going on even when members of the public might be considered a nuisance and/or an impediment profit.

Tina said... impediment TO profit...[correction to my last line above]

Vic said...

You girls sure do have a way with words!

Amy Morton said...

Well said, Tina. Well, said, indeed.

Tina said...

It runs in my family, Vic. We can't help it... :-)

Open+Transparent said...

Amy, make sure the elected Dem's you know read this (even though DuB and Calvin could care less):

And the waste and bloat at GDOT is borderline criminal.