There’s no disinfectant like a little sunlight, as the saying goes, and that seems truer than ever in our age where there’s ever more information but also a growing tendency of government to keep information out of public hands. That worrisome trend must be reversed if we’re ever going to get the open, accountable government that we deserve.
Politicians often come into office promising to be transparent, but once there they find it difficult or inconvenient to follow through. President Obama, for example, promised the most transparent administration in history, but has recently come under fire for the work his Department of Justice did to derail expansion of the Freedom of Information Act. His record on transparency in general is decidedly mixed, as well, which sadly puts him on par with most modern presidents.
Closer to home, the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI) has issued tongue-in-cheek “Secrecy in Government Awards” to government individuals or bodies that have failed in their duty to be open and accountable.
The group has singled out Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s bad at this. There have been several bills before the legislature trying to open them up to Freedom of Information laws, but none have been successful so far. UConn likes to hide behind the need to stay competitive, but other successful public universities don’t feel the need to be as secretive.
The CCFOI handed out two more “awards,” one to Paul Cianelli of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association for deriding as a tax CT-N’s plan to pay for its much-needed coverage of hearings, votes, and other actions of the legislature and various agencies with a minimal fee for cable TV subscribers, and another to the Norwalk Board of Education for declaring that they don’t exist between meetings — which allows members to do business as they please during those gaps. Obviously the public needs CT-N, whose footage is the only way most people have to watch their government in action, and the creation of a loophole like the Norwalk Board of Education’s is an insult to the notion of accountability in government.
There are certainly more they could have nominated. The closed-door budget sessions at the Capitol last session definitely come to mind, for instance, as does all the secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the building of Hartford’s new and increasingly troubled minor league ballpark.
How did it get this way? Why are we saddled with a government that, especially on the federal level, wants to know more and more about us but wants us to know less and less about itself? Why is the government interested in forcing Apple to make a way into your iPhone but less interested in revealing what it’s doing with all the data it collects on us?
The problem is that we’ve allowed this to happen through our own neglect and apathy. Open and accountable government only works when someone is there to actually hold the government to account. But many voters seem less interested in transparency than they are in bread-and-butter issues like the economy. There’s also the problem of the loss of so many jobs in journalism, and the mass closing of local and regional news sources. If no one is covering town government, who will hold them to account?
Voters also seem determined to give a pass to politicians who either outright break the public trust or work to keep the work of government secret. Given all that, it’s not surprising that we are where we are.
That has to change. It’s Sunshine Week this week, and to celebrate we should all pledge to do our part to keep our government open, honest, and accountable. Democracy doesn’t work without the disinfecting light of the sun.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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