Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 16, 2004

Secrecy, paternalism equal bad government

“Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” ~ Author George Jean Nathan

I’m increasingly disturbed by a trend toward conducting the people’s business behind closed doors that I’ve noticed in government at all levels.

On a national level, I’m galled and worried by Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings to determine national energy policy with energy company executives – not to mention his extraordinary legal efforts to prevent revelation of who attended those meetings.

I’m frightened by provisions of the Patriot Act that allow searches – without judicial approval – of private records held by third parties (such as Internet service providers, physicians and financial institutions) while forever barring those who hold those records from notifying the subject that a search was conducted.

Locally, I’m still perturbed that the Morgan Hill City Council approved, behind closed doors, spending $50,000 on a questionable investigation on the now-infamous City Hall scandal.

But the admittedly limited public outcry about possible Brown Act violations didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the Morgan Hill City Council. After a highly controversial settlement with the city attorney to prevent a possible harassment lawsuit stemming from the City Hall scandal, City Council members voted 4-0 to approve a one-year contract extension for the city attorney without comment. This was possible because someone placed the contract extension on the agenda’s consent calendar.

The consent calendar is supposed to be reserved for routine, non-controversial items that can be approved en masse and without comment or debate.

Despite his pre-meeting promise to open the contract extension for discussion, Mayor Dennis Kennedy said he “forgot” to remove the item from the consent calendar during City Council’s Oct. 6 meeting.

Color me doubtful, especially given the pattern of secrecy surrounding the handling of the City Hall scandal. That doubt deepens when I consider that it apparently didn’t occur to any of the other three council members in attendance to move the item off the consent calendar.

As a taxpayer, I’m angry that after agreeing to a settlement that costs taxpayers more than $58,000 ($25,000 check to the city attorney, $15,000 fee to her attorney, seven extra weeks of vacation valued at $18,489 for salary alone), not one of Morgan Hill’s City Council members had the courage or inclination to explain to taxpayers why they were voting for a contract extension.

Maybe extending the contract was the right thing to do. Maybe it wasn’t. It’s hard to say when City Council members hide behind the consent calendar instead of defending their votes, debating both sides of the issue, or inviting comment from the public.

I covered City Hall as a reporter for The Times. I know and like all of the City Council members and the city attorney, but I’m appalled by City Council members’ secretive, paternalistic behavior on issues stemming from the City Hall scandal.

Secrecy, except under severely limited and strictly controlled circumstances, does not do democracy any favors. It might make the job of those in power easier, but it doesn’t help the governed – that is, you and me. As philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it, “Without publicity, no good is permanent; under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.”

There is a way to reduce government’s fondness for secrecy: an informed, involved electorate.

The first step is getting citizens to vote.

Politicians have no motivation to listen to people who don’t vote. Why should they? Nonvoters have nothing to offer politicians when they run for re-election or seek higher office.

If you want a voice in our democracy, register and vote. The deadline to register is Monday. Forms are available at City Hall, the post office and public library, or online at http://www.sccvote.org.

Voting is just the first step. To really make politicians accountable, citizens must get involved. Attend council, commission or school board meetings if you can. Read news accounts about the issues, and communicate with elected officials. It’s imperative that politicians are constantly aware that citizens are watching.

I don’t always agree with local groups lobbying school boards and city councils, but I always give them kudos for being involved. Their efforts make our elected officials accountable.

One of the key ways I’ll be evaluating candidates this election is by reviewing their records and their promises on open government. Disclosure is good for democracy.

“The liberties of a people never were nor ever will be secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” – Patriot Patrick Henry

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