How can journalists make you care about open government?

I’ve just wrapped up a fascinating one-day conference in Grafton, Vermont, which involved a lot of great journalists trying to figure out how to make you care about open government.

By open government, I means nuts-and-bolts stuff:  Convincing public officials to follow the law by holding public meetings, and by releasing documents to citizens (including journalists) in a timely and convenient way.

The issue was highlighted in ironic form last week, when one North Country town apparently met illegally in order to try to impede a visit by New York state’s open government expert.

This from the Glens Falls Post Star.

The Horicon Town Board held what appeared to be an illegal meeting Wednesday to ban an event from Town Hall that was to feature the state’s expert on the Freedom of Information and open meetings laws.

The “emergency” meeting was held by the board to rescind permission for local residents to host Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, for an open government discussion at Town Hall on Feb. 9.

In the comment section for the story, a fair number of people sympathized with the officials who held an unscheduled, unnoticed meeting.

The reaction was even more striking last October, when the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that a quorum village trustees in Saranac Lake were holding regular meetings at a local bar.

[W]hen pressed by the Enterprise this week, [Mayor Clyde] Rabideau and several trustees acknowledged public business does come up at the get-togethers.

“We don’t debate things; we don’t make decisions,” said [trustee Jeff] Branch. “We may discuss things.”

This is basic stuff.  The public’s business — including the discussions that inform out elected officials’ decision-making — needs to be done in the open, where citizens can see what’s going on.

That’s common sense, but it’s also the law.

But the response to the Enterprise’s reporting was scathing.  “The press has made a mountain out of a molehill as they usually do,” was a typical response.

“We have politically motivated and biased reporters working in our community and everyone knows this,” the commenter added.

My bias here is obvious.  I’m convinced that when government goes on behind closed doors, or at times the public doesn’t know about, or in locations the public doesn’t know about, bad things are certain to happen.

But I get the fact that we journalists haven’t figured out a way to most citizens care about this stuff.  So I’m looking for your thoughts.

Do you think open government matters?  Or are journalists just prying pests trying to stir up trouble?  If you do think “sunshine” is an important part of democracy, how can we convince more people to share this concern?

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13 Comments on “How can journalists make you care about open government?”

  1. Mervel says:

    I think it is important. The problem is in smaller communities you are often calling out individuals who everyone knows and frankly these guys don’t get paid they are volunteering and if it becomes too much of a hassle no one will do it.

    From a local perspective the real power does not lie within these little volunteer unpaid local positions (village trustee, school boards, county legislator, mayor etc) but in the massive and highly paid unelected county and school administrators. Sure on paper they report up through these boards, but not really they really run themselves. This is where I would like to see more work done, particularly dealing with nepotism, corruption and pay issues.

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  2. Bret4207 says:

    I think it’s foolish to think all the talk and decision making goes on in their meetings. All it takes is a phone to do the work. But, the idea of open and transparent gov’t is important. If you can find a way to help that, more power to you.

    I can sympathize with the comments about the press making a mountain out of a mole hill. Isn’t accurate, unbiased and impartial reporting part of the civility you were asking for the other day? As much power as these officials have, the press has an equal, if not greater power to affect the outcome of issues.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    Brian,
    While open government and public meetings are important at the local level and is to be encouraged, what about at the state and federal level?
    The higher up you go, the more the secrecy. This is especially true among the tens of thousands of bureaucracies in both the state and federal governments. There everything is a big secret. There just about every meeting is conducted in secret. Everything is on a need to know basis and if I tell you I will have to kill you.
    What we have here is a case of the state and federal governments telling local governments they need to be open and “do as I say, not as I do.”
    Sorry to change the subject a bit but it is a subject that I believe needs to be addressed.

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  4. mervel says:

    In St. Lawrence County we have a county budget that is around 200 million dollars; it would seem that really looking at this massive amount of money and how it is managed and spent would be a good thing for the public to care about. For me it’s far more important than whether or not a couple of the unpaid county legislators had a couple of beers together. The inner workings of the county administration is where the action is, not the board of legislators who seem to have little impact or even understand what is going on in managing a ¼ of Billion dollar budget.

    One of the most powerful and well financed groups in our county is BOCES. Who pays for them, who elects them and how do they operate? I really have no idea, I know they have some sort of board but they seem to operate in the shadows for such a large organization and they have an impact on our local property taxes yet we know little about what is going on.

    How about the independent state appointed authorities? What is exactly going on with the Bridge and Port authority or the Power authorities? How much are they paid who is doing what and why?

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The Horicon incident is a little more complicated in that the purpose of the meeting was not necessarily to stifle the talk by Freeman but because of the involvement of organizer June Maxam, local journalist/gadfly/character. Apparently she scares these guys.

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  6. JDM says:

    In answer to the question, “how do journalists make you care”…

    I think a lot of people want open government. If we have elected officials on any level that do not give us open government, we should not vote for them.

    This may be inconvenient, because there may be other issues that people consider more important than open government, so they excuse the issue.

    Certainly New York State is notorious for budget deals made by three people in secret and the rest of the legislature and the public, are shut out.

    Obama and the 110th Congress passed bills that we told we couldn’t know the content until after they were passed.

    Well, then. Vote them out.

    The question is, will this become a one-issue top-priority, or will it be something people are willing to overlook to keep their favorite guys in office.

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  7. mervel says:

    From your topic this morning:

    “Also on the topic of groaning government budgets, the Glens Falls Post Star is proposing that secret contract talks with public employee unions be opened to more scrutiny.
    Given the significant financial impact on taxpayers of employee salary-and-benefits packages at all levels of government, maybe it’s time to rethink our societal acceptance of secrecy when it comes to public contract negotiations.”

    Do journalists accept this “secrecy when it comes to public contract negotiations”? To me this is where the real need is to crack open the darkness of what is really going on in local government; this is what open government really means. Sure it is important to follow the rules on when the legislature meets, but the real issues the real action is occurring in these secret negotiations, one wonders why they are secret and why journalists have not pushed the issue?

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  8. Pete Klein says:

    The open meeting law states: (e) collective negotiations pursuant to Article 14 of the Civil Service Law (the Taylor Law) may be closed for an executive session. This mean contract negotiations with the teacher union or any other public employee union.
    Also of note. Many people think they have a right to speak at a public meeting of town, county or school boards. Not true. The Open Meeting Law says, “a public body may permit you to speak at open meetings, but is not required to do so.”
    Of further interest and certainly a grey area, the law states: “Since the law applies to ‘official’ meetings, chance meetings or social gatherings are not covered by the law.”
    If anyone has a problem with any of the above, take it up with the “three men in a room.”

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  9. Mervel says:

    Sure it says “may” be closed and that is at the whim of the Board to call executive session. So if journalists started pushing to open this up to ask why is this secret why do you need to call a secret executive session to negotiate with our tax dollars, what do you have to hide in these negotiations, what are the personal and professional relationships between the elected officials and the unions they are negotiating with etc. I think people would get excited real fast about what is going on if we really pushed on these types of issues.

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  10. Pete Klein says:

    Mervel,
    I think you are dreaming. Most people have real lives to live, kids to raise, work to do and need time to relax. This all news, 24/7/365 appeals to very few people. Many don’t even want to bother to vote.
    Bemoan the truth all you or any of the talking heads on radio, TV and print want but it will not change how the average person feels.
    The truly silent majority are silent for a very good reason – they don’t give a darn and know that none of those who want to lead them, be they from the media or the government, really don’t give a darn about them. They know they just like to toot their horn.

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  11. Mervel says:

    Exactly that’s why we need journalists to go get this stuff for us so we don’t have to do anything.

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  12. Pete Klein says:

    Hope this is my last comment on this thread.
    I really don’t like the term “journalist.” The term is too expansive. Question. Do you want the news reported or do you want opinion? Do you want the news or opinion? Do you want news or advocacy?
    When I do my job as a reporter, I try to keep my opinions out of the mix. I try to follow the advice of Sgt. Joe Friday and stick to the facts.
    Do I have opinions? Sure. Everyone does. So what?
    I think many people are mistrustful of “journalists” because they too often do pick sides, too often want to be seen as the “good guys” for a particular side or view point.
    One of the easiest ways to spot the slanting of news is in the use of adjectives and adverbs. Nouns and verb state the facts. Adjectives and adverbs state an opinion.
    To give but one non controversial example. When your local weatherman says it will be a nice, sunny and warmer day tomorrow, he is offering an opinion. Nice is an opinion. Maybe you would like to go snowmobiling and nice to you would be cold, not warmer. Maybe if you are a farmer you would like to see some rain during the growing season, not another nice, sunny, hot dry day.

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  13. Sheila Newtown says:

    I think that the only way the news media can ask the government to be more transparent is by applying that to itself. Over the past several years there has been constant degradation of the line between journalists and politicians. An example would be events given by the National Association of Broadcasters where journalists and top anchors meet and greet the very politicians and CEOs they are supposed to be reporting on. Also,so few companies own the media now that there is very little desire or ability to watchdog who is partial to whom because the company that owns them wants a story or politician covered a certain way. Third how many times have we seen politicians children become “special correspondents” for news outlets or that ex political figures become experts on news shows. It seems to me that the call of wealth offered by the media to politicians and their families is just another sign of corruption in our system. NAB is also one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capital Hill. The revolving door is not just politics-lobbying groups it also is politics-join a media outlet- lobby.
    This, I hope, doesn’t apply so much to local media but maybe local media should start looking at and making more transparent these types of connections throughout government. It’s a cinch major networks won’t do it. I’ve lost a could deal of trust and faith in media because of their lack of transparency in their connections to the powerful, both in business and politics. Start cleaning yourselves up first and maybe the rest will follow.

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