Happy birthday James Madison, a believer in open government

Today (Friday March 16) is the birthday of James Madison, a primary architect of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth president of the United States. He is one of those “Founding Fathers” folks in politics are fond of referencing repeatedly — usually after they symbolically spit upon what the Founding Fathers espoused. Yeah, the United States has a complicated relationship with how it came to be and what the basic tenets of our nation truly mean.

james-madisonIt was that way in the 1700s, too. Development of the Constitution was a contentious process that nearly exhausted, frazzled and flummoxed all involved. In fact, Madison’s concerns for the young nation’s evolution have pretty much played out over the past two or three decades. A fractured nation devolving into a leadership vacuum. He was among the great thinkers of his day in terms of government and freedom. Sadly, he probably could not exist today without being marginalized by sneering political forces.

That’s one reason Sunshine Week — created to promote and symbolize shining light in the dark corners of government operations — is scheduled annually in mid-March, which coincides with Madison’s birthday on March 16, 1751. Sunshine Day was first celebrated in 2005, well after Madison’s time but coinciding with the accurate perception that citizens were often left in the dark about public operations when they really shouldn’t. Newspapers and other media outlets promote it heavily. Sunshine Week is winding to a close today for 2018. It marks a commitment to the idea of open government so the public knows what its leaders are actually doing. (Hint, for the past several years it’s spending public money on bad ideas or weird concepts and completely ignoring what the public might think so political forces can follow their own narrow agendas.)

I have written about Sunshine Week too many times to count over the years. I was a newspaper reporter and editor for more than 30 decades and scarred by many skirmishes over public records with a variety of government agencies. I came to realize that the public somehow wrongly concluded years ago that this open government stuff was something that only mattered to newspapers or other media and didn’t impact them at all. That’s one of the true shames in American life today.

Still, I have to keep trying.  Yes, I still strongly believe in open government and transparency at every level — from the smallest town councils to the White House. I agreed with a Burlington Times-News editorial comment a few week ago asking the Alamance-Burlington Schools System to release the names of its finalists for superintendent of Schools as the interview process continues. My friend and current superintendent Bill Harrison didn’t agree and wasn’t happy the school got a “Thumb’s Down” in the newspaper’s weekly editorial published each Saturday.

Harrison says

I understand Bill’s point but still contend openness in the hiring process for a position such as superintendent of schools or county manager is essential. The public should have the opportunity to scrutinize candidates for such high-profile jobs that impact the lives of so many residents. I always felt a candidate unwilling to make his or her name public beforehand is also not being very honest with a current employer. And if they can’t take public questions before being hired it’s hard to know how well they will deal with the public after taking the job.

I believe open processes are the least government and elected leaders can do: Operate where all can see what they’re doing and understand why decisions are made. People need to know how and why money is spent or for what reason decisions are made. Why someone who oversees a multi-million dollar budget and the lives of thousands of people is hired.  Even if people aren’t really interested anymore — and my hunch is the vast majority are not — that information should be in full, unfettered view at all times.

So why doesn’t it happen?

I wrote last year that politicians mostly and  bureaucracy are the main culprits. It’s an obfuscation fueled by hubris, egos, fear, cowardice, litigation, stubbornness, contrariness and ignorance — yes, some people just don’t know any better. Those are all reasons I’ve seen over more than 30 years as a reporter and editor. Too often government officials feel they’re above the law, don’t understand the law or think the law doesn’t matter or apply to them. Many feel they know  far more than the law and simply ignore it. Even more often, government constructs legal roadblocks that themselves become self-serving laws that further government secrecy and deny taxpayers access to information they paid for to start with.

This is why  “Sunshine Week” was created.

Yes, there are legit reasons for government to keep some information to itself -– but those occasions should be rare. Open government is among those things that ensure freedom in our nation — something the public seems willing to forget about more often these days. An open government and an honest government is the best government. We often lack both on the national level.

So happy birthday to James Madison. Even though many of his ideas are a little off the rails — forgotten or abused — these days, he would still recognize America and all the political special interests battling for its soul.

 

 

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