When does secrecy override the public’s need to be informed?

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Readers of this column or my Facebook blog, Crosswise on Politics, know I’ve frequently been critical of the Stephenville Empire-Tribune.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find three good articles in the Empire-Tribune which effectively raise an issue crucial to the preservation of democracy—the growing degree of secrecy in our city government.  Two articles by one of its reporters document the growing number and length of executive sessions in which the city council has met (http://www.yourstephenvilletx.com/news/local/marathon-executive-session-yields-little-information/article_2a4a6015-9f4c-549e-95bc-27262c36ea63.html, and http://www.yourstephenvilletx.com/news/local/is-the-city-council-overusing-executive-sessions/article_59ef3e8f-a348-5cec-bb3d-a95253a3052d.html).  A column by its editor raises excellent questions about the role of secrecy in a democratic political system (http://www.yourstephenvilletx.com/opinion/jerry-warren-is-like-a-day-at-the-beach-with/article_167c4d1e-9d7e-5538-8377-35bda512881e.html).  I recommend all three articles to anyone and everyone concerned with the direction in which our city is going.

Under some circumstances, secrecy is necessary.  Discussion of sensitive personnel issues, real estate transactions, and strategies to be followed in legal proceedings can best be carried out in secret.  Moreover, in the three cities I worked, either as a member of a city manager’s staff or as a city council member, I frequently found that council members discussing matters in secret, or at least in the absence of the press or an audience of citizens, tended to be more candid, courteous, informative, and reasonable than when they were debating in the spotlight before a live audience or a television camera.  In public, some council members became more willing to play to their audiences and score points off each other than to try to fashion agreements and compromises that best served the public.

Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

But as the Empire-Tribune’s staff help document, secrecy carries with it dangers as well.  If important decisions are made in secret, the public cannot know how its elected or appointed officials behaved or what they did.  In dismissing the director of building and planning services, the administrator and the council acted legally—but did they do the right thing?  Do they deserve the support, or the condemnation, of the public?  Nobody knows.  And when the public doesn’t know what’s going on, officials get a free pass to say or do whatever they want, without the accountability so necessary for a functioning democracy. 

The danger is especially great in Stephenville, given the importance the voters and the council attach to economic development and the pivotal role the recently dismissed director was playing, and would have continued to play, had she been retained.  Too much time, effort, and money have been invested in this issue to get it wrong, but the administrative chaos that has followed the firing—the recently appointed new interim director is the third occupant of that position in about a year—reduces the chances of getting things right.  Not only is it time for the city council and its staff to get their act together, it’s time for the voters to be allowed to know what’s going on, so they can more intelligently reward or punish their officials at the polls, as needed.  The efforts of the Empire-Tribune and its staff are important contributions to the effort to let the public in on whatever secrets the city council may be hiding.

And speaking of economic development, an excellent article in The Flash not only documents more secrecy in our city government but also underscores a point I made in several columns published by The Flash during the campaign for Proposition 1 (https://theflashtoday.com/2015/08/19/council-issues-bridges-requirements-for-specific-changes-and-a-deadline/ ).  You’ll recall that the chamber of commerce argued that Prop 1, which diverts property tax revenue to economic development projects, could be implemented with no tax increases or service cuts. I argued that whenever a government has limited funds and wants to increase spending on one set of projects, it must raise more money to do so either by raising taxes or by cutting spending elsewhere (actually, it could also borrow the money, but then it would have to raise taxes or divert money from other projects to pay off the debt).  Well, The Flash is reporting that the city council is currently looking for spending cuts to make in existing programs to free up funding for Prop 1.  It’s reassuring to know that the current city council is beginning to learn some of the principles regularly taught in Public Budgeting 101. But then again, the need to either, borrow,  raise taxes, or cut spending for some projects if one wants to spend more money on other projects has never been much of a secret.

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