No reason to hide public's business

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

Q: What do the Bush administration and the Alaska House of Representatives have in common?

A: Both think the public doesn't need to know how the public's business is conducted.

The Bush administration is claiming "executive privilege" and is refusing to hand over documents from Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group.

"The president will stand strong on principle, fighting for his right and the right of all future presidents to receive advice without it being turned into a virtual news release," explained White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer.

Almost the entire Alaska House of Representatives met in a closed session Wednesday to discuss the state's budget problems.

"In my humble opinion, half of these people wouldn't have said what they said if the cameras were there," said House Speaker Brian Porter, defending the closed meeting.

The issues are different, but they breed the same popular perceptions about government and elected officials: Decisions are made in private, not public. Politicians think they know better than the folks who elected them to office. There are parts of the public's business the public doesn't really need to know about.

Most elected officials will say those things are misperceptions about government -- and they may well be -- but, the fact is, conducting business behind closed doors does not inspire the public's trust. It breeds contempt for the process. It disenfranchises people from government. It makes people think government is hiding something from them.

In the case of the state legislators, it's disturbing that they think they cannot be candid about the state's most important issue with the very people who put them in office.

It shows a lack of leadership, a lack of statesmanship and a lack of faith in Alaskans. After all, don't Alaskans and their elected leaders want the same thing -- an economically healthy state? What can be said behind closed doors that can't be said in public?

In our humble opinion, those things don't need to be said at all.

If legislators want Alaskans' support for a plan to close the state's budget gap, they need to involve them every step of the way. If Alaskans think a budget plan is the result of deal-making, and they don't know what the deals are, they're unlikely to support it.

Ironically, legislators, then, will wonder why they don't have the public's backing once they do come up with a sound financial plan.

The question is: Does the end justify the means?

If so, government at all levels is on shaky ground. If you can justify keeping the public's business private because it ultimately results in good -- say, a long-range fiscal plan for the state before the closing day of the legislative session -- then where do you draw the line with closed meetings?

Certainly, government would be easier and more efficient if it didn't have to operate in the open. Surely, however, that's not the brand of government that has made the United States of America the envy of the world. It can't be the kind of government we're defending now in the war against terrorism.

Our elected leaders have a tough job to do. They need the public's help to do their job -- the public's business -- well. The best way to tap into that help is ensuring that citizens are well informed. Citizens can only be well informed if the public's business is done in public.

It really is as simple as that.

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