03/19/11 — Right to know: Public officials need to remember for whom they work

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Right to know: Public officials need to remember for whom they work

There is this odd misconception among public officeholders in general.

It is not something they are born with it. It just comes along with being elected to a position of authority -- and being a bit determined to keep that position.

After years of critiquing the secrecy of government officials and bureaucrats and the arrogance of those whose main objective is to keep the public ignorant of what really goes on under those golden domes, they all of sudden drink the Kool-Aid and decide that there is some information the public simply does not need to know, not completely anyway.

They adopt the philosophy that the public's right to know begins when they are done talking about an issue.

It is not limited to any one public body or any one person. And believe it or not, there is not a county in North Carolina or the United States that does not have someone, somewhere who believes that the mere fact that they received a majority of votes in an election somehow elevates their intellect above those they have sworn to serve.

That's why you regularly hear some of them talk about how there are just certain discussions and decisions that need to be held among a few and not shared with the many.

What these officeholders -- and sometimes their employees -- forget is that they have been ensconced in their ivory towers by the people -- to do the business in the interest of the people.

There are very, very few circumstances that really should merit secrecy -- and the goal of any of the many officeholders who have said they are for openness in government should be to find ways to include the people in their decision-making process, not to hunt down the loophole that would allow them to close a meeting.

What is often amusing is how many officials really think they are being open books when it comes to serving the public and sharing information their constituents might want to know before a final decision is made.

They do not think the process should be open to scrutiny or that citizens should have all the information before they hear the decisions their elected representatives have made. So they have no problem with backdoor negotiations, telephone calls to fellow officeholders before the meeting or even some gatherings that they simply decide not to let anyone know about -- and arrange so that the letter of the Sunshine Law has been followed, but not the spirit.

So while an amendment to the North Carolina State Constitution making public access to information a right might seem a little excessive to some, it just might re-emphasize a standard that seems to be lacking in politics these days -- that politicians work for the people, not the other way around.

Published in Editorials on March 19, 2011 11:24 PM