Monday, March 21, 2011

Transparency? State's business being recorded with 'invisible ink'

Sometimes The State nails it, drives home a great and appropriate point about how business gets done at the State House.

Today's an example: Cindi Ross Scoppe observes that while "Transparency, The Brand" is making quite a bit of headway, "Transparency, The Practice" has some miles yet to travel. The rules for conducting business in the chamber may have changed for the better, but more business is now being conducted before lawmakers get to the chamber -- and what's presented then is the ol' done-deal.

Is that what advocates of transparency had in mind?

Worse than the silly things the Legislature is doing in the name of transparency, though, is what isn’t getting done because the transparency campaign is fixated on spending. Except for recorded voting, all the advances have been about making it easier to access information that already was public, but our state still has woefully inadequate open-government and open-records laws.

City and county councils and school boards routinely meet in secret to discuss public business; they get away with it because the law lacks any way to prove they violated it — or punishment when it’s clear they did. Many quasi-public groups that are funded with tax money still refuse to acknowledge that the public has a right to know what they do.

Legislative caucuses legally lock the public out of meetings in which they decide what will be debated and passed. House and Senate leaders work out the details of important bills in secret meetings so they can avoid conference committees, which must meet in public.

Professional disciplinary boards keep complaints secret unless they decide to take action, making it impossible to tell whether they’re protecting the public or protecting their peers. Officials refuse to explain why they fire public employees.

Government agencies charge exorbitant fees for “compiling” records, in order to deter requests. When reporters test the law by asking to look at arrest documents without identifying themselves, they’re often turned down — demonstrating that even the parts of the law that work fairly well for journalists are routinely violated when ordinary citizens try to use it.

Yet in this the year of transparency, only a couple of bills have been introduced (besides roll-call voting legislation) whose purpose is to give the public access to more information, among them an absurd little measure to make the governor invite the public in when she meets with one of her appointees.

If there’s a campaign to make our government more open, it’s being waged with that invisible ink.

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