Editorials

Editorial: Citizens have a right to expect transparency in government

MCT

The agreement between citizens and their government representatives in our democracy should be completely carried out.

We elect them to conduct the people’s business and we send our governments – local, state and federal – taxes and fees for those things that serve society: the military, infrastructure, education, law enforcement and much more.

But there are elected representatives (and their appointed officials) who don’t want the public knowing what they’ve done, what they are planning to do or how those tax dollars are spent.

This failure to commit to full transparency is why we have Sunshine Week, which is a national effort promoting open government and freedom of information.

Though newspapers and other media groups spearhead the initiative, others play a vital role in reminding public officials and agencies of their responsibility to conduct the people’s business in public. Among these advocates for “sunshine” are civic groups, nonprofits and citizens who believe that government must held accountable for its actions.

The 11th Sunshine Week kicks off today, and there is a general feeling that it is fulfilling its goals despite new challenges posed by rapidly advancing digital technology and the customary reluctance, or the downright refusal, of public officials to meet the spirit and the letter of sunshine laws.

“National Sunshine Week has been incredibly important in educating the public about their right to know,” says Dave Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor and former president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Without public support and understanding of the issues, secrecy is bound to creep into government.

“The week provided a news peg for journalists to write about an issue they would normally peg as ‘inside baseball.’ The result of the voluminous news coverage is that our nation’s governments – at all levels – are more accountable, more transparent and more responsive to the people.”

That said, we can point to at least two local holdouts from full transparency: the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and Fresno Unified School District.

The majority of supervisors blocked the public from seeing last year a report that documented mistakes and policy violations made by Child Protective Services employees that contributed to the death of 10-year-old Seth Ireland of Fresno in 2009.

The county first appealed a Superior Court directive that the report be made available to attorneys representing Ireland’s father in a civil suit against the county. That was the county’s right. But then it defied a 5th District Court of Appeal ruling that the report be handed over to the father’s legal team; the county also refused to provide the report to The Bee.

On Jan. 13 of this year, the county was sanctioned $4,500 and again ordered to produce the document. Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton also denied the county’s request to prohibit the release of the report to the public.

On Feb. 3, the county finally released the report to the public.

Fresno Unified, too, is not fully committed to transparency, as evidenced by the district’s delay of The Bee’s request for emails exchanged with Harris Construction, in light of a federal investigation of deals with the contractor.

The Bee requested five months’ worth of emails Dec. 1, 2015, but did not receive them until Feb. 29, 2016, and the district refused to say how many emails were omitted.

There’s also the fact that Superintendent Michael Hanson and other senior district officials used Cyber Dust, a controversial privacy phone app, to conduct school district business in 2014.

Hanson, moreover, didn’t publicly acknowledge using the app, which automatically erases any record of text messages and leaves no digital footprint, until Sept. 29, 2015 – after it had become a topic of speculation in the community and a reporter’s questions.

Hanson’s explanation was that he and others used Cyber Dust for less than a month as a trial to determine “if it would help us do our work better and more effectively, and it didn’t.”

Efficiency might have been Hanson’s motive, but by using the app he demonstrated a reckless disregard for transparency and keeping accurate records for public inspection.

And because Cyber Dust came to light a month after the district was served with a federal subpoena requesting documents pertaining to Fresno Unified’s involvement in no-bid construction contracts – including district officials’ personal phone records – the revelation eroded public trust in the district.

“I think with respect to technology, normal is always changing,” Hanson said. “But let me be very, very clear: When we used it, we were totally within our district policy around electronic records in that we don’t retain instant or text messages of any type. It’s not something we archive.

“But that has all changed from the moment we got notified by the grand jury. We have been active in making sure we’re preserving everything they’ve asked for.”

In other words, Hanson – with support from a majority of Fresno Unified trustees – doesn’t believe that the public has a right to examine the text messages of employees doing the people’s work. But, with federal agents scrutinizing the district, Fresno Unified will keep complete records.

It is public-be-damned attitudes such as this that make Sunshine Week vital to our democracy.

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