What is the public’s right to know what government is up to, and when should the public know it?
As deep as our heels are dug in when it comes to First Amendment rights and the obligation of government to operate with transparency, even we have to admit there are no easy answers to those questions.
The revelation last month that the U.S. Department of Justice obtained secret subpoenas to seize phone records of reporters while investigating an apparent CIA leak caused a knee-jerk reaction so profound that it had media pundits typically critical of mainstream journalists crying foul. The apparent leak of information about a covert anti-terrorism operation could put at the risk the lives of agents working for the U.S. or one of our allies and while we shudder at the ham-handed approach by DOJ to trace the source, we can fully understand the effort.
Transparency issues are all around us lately.
Right here in South Carolina, the state Senate, at the last minute, breathed life into an ethics reform bill that seemed destined to die of inaction before the current legislative session ends. Among other things, the bill, if it becomes law without extensive revision, would require lawmakers to more fully disclose their sources of income and shed light on other possible conflicts of interest.
Unfortunately, the deal that brought the bill back to viability this session included an agreement to prioritize another bill that proposes blocking any implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act in S.C. Since that law mandates the creation of state-run insurances “exchanges” it seems unlikely S.C. can enact any blocking legislation without inviting a protracted and costly court fight. However, since the state seemed destined to fight to keep any benefits of the Affordable Care Act from reaching its citizens, perhaps it’s not an unreasonable price to pay for true ethics reform being enacted this year.
Even closer to home, there are open government issues to consider. From the county council to town and city councils and the school boards, so-called executive sessions allow elected officials to discuss the public’s business behind closed doors. While there may sometimes be sufficient reasons – although no good recent examples come to mind – for elected officials to meet in secret, that practice should be the exception, not the rule. Instead, almost every public meeting agenda includes an executive session period. Sometimes, councils and boards will go in and out of these sessions several times during the course of a meeting.
If they feel going behind closed doors is absolutely necessary, perhaps officials can at least give the public a better explanation of why.
Another practice we’d like to see changed involves the Town of Fort Mill’s quarterly workshop. Although open to the public, these sessions at which various town businesses is discussed are often held far from town. The last one, held in May, took place in Chester. We’re not accusing the town council of holding a public meeting in Chester to evade scrutiny, but doing so certainly runs counter to what should be the goal – encouraging public participation.
And that’s what all of our elected officials and bodies should be doing. Even in the most heated election cycles or when voters have an opportunity to decide important issues such as the recent Fort Mill school bond or the proposed county infrastructure bond that went down in flames a few years ago, far too few residents go to the polls. It all starts at the local level and an earnest effort by elected officials to encourage public participation through meetings and practices that are more open.
We agree there are instances, like the CIA leak, where full disclosure is not in the public’s best interest, but those instances should be even more rare than digging up a dinosaur egg. When they do occur, officials owe the public a full and satisfactory explanation why.