Sunday, December 12, 2010

Of "Secrets" and Transparency, Part I

Far too much has already been written about the December 3 meeting at the home of county councilman-elect Julian Rogers, especially by our local daily. The Plain Dealer has led the chorus denouncing what they so obviously enjoy referring to as the "secret" meeting that resulted in the agreement -- now in tatters -- among six members-elect to support C. Ellen Connally for president and Dale Miller for vice president. The vote was to have been last Monday but that was scuttled under the PD's intimidating bullhorn and angry spotlight.

There has been too little analysis accompanying the outrage, however, so a week later we offer our assessment of this tempest. We do acknowledge however, that the paper did offer what was likely a fair sampling of public commentary on its website, even citing two of our favorite bloggers, Anastasia Pantsios here and Jill Miller Zimon here.

Our first observation is to note that calling the meeting "secret" is inaccurate. There is no evidence that the organizers or attendees intended to keep knowledge of the meeting hidden. That this was never a goal is clear, given that councilman-elect Chuck Germana was told about the meeting beforehand but not invited, pretty much a surefire way to get the word out.

Further evidence that the meeting was not secret was that we were able to report its results almost immediately afterwards. Our informant was not at the meeting but had received the news from one of the key attendees who had called to share it. So even after the meeting there was no press for "secrecy".

In short, the meeting was "secret" only if you define secrecy as being not broadcast via press release or open to the media and general public.

A better characterization of the meeting is to say it was "private", in the sense of not being open to the public.

Did the meeting violate what Cuyahoga residents voted for when they passed the new charter? I don't know, although there are lots of folks who are screaming "YES". But do not count me among the presumptive mindreaders who now speak with precise authority about what voters wanted last November.

The result of that election was clear. The vast majority wanted change. Heck, even many opponents of Issue 6 and/or supporters of Issue 5 [not necessarily the same people] wanted change. It is a near-certainty that most of us wanted an end to corruption and nepotism, more honesty and openness, greater efficiency, more transparency, fewer executive sessions and an end to backroom deals regarding the expenditure of public funds.

Did we even discuss how the council president would be selected? Did we want less partisanship? Arguably, but the drafters and promoters of Issue 6 gave us a complete charter, crafted behind closed doors, that did not call for nonpartisan primaries or elections.

Let's be clear. We also wanted smarter government than the 19th century commissioner system and the six council members-elect have gotten off to a poor start in assuring us that we will get it. They could have found a better way to select their leadership, and they most certainly should have been more courageous about it.

In my view, council members should never have promised a public process, only a transparent one. The difference: the Democratic members had a right to caucus, and should have explained the circumstances under which it was appropriate to caucus. They should have then announced that they were going to caucus, worked our their leadership, and then announced the results. Transparency achieved.

The larger point that needs addressing is where we go from here. We are a fragile and fractured polity, and we are like the generals fighting the last war, with too little regard for how the landscape has changed. We will talk about this tomorrow.


Jill said...

Very good distinctions being made here - thank you! As I've written, it's FINE for the PD to be covering this - but they have basically written all the same stuff - how many times? They have done extremely little educating on how this all works and why nontransparent habits have formed in the first place. An entire primer on open meetings law and who they are for and what they are to accomplish and as you say, the difference between public and transparent is so needed. Campaign finance has the same issue re: 527s and now the Citizen United-enabled groups.

The PD would be doing a much greater service to the new government and those it serves if it would spend some time educating, not just exposing and implying and editorializing.

Thanks for your wriitng.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis Richard! Look forward to your next piece. -- Lora

dickpeery said...

Richard, you're incisive, as usual, but you understate the mandate of the public when you say the charter does not call for nonpartisonship. Section 3.05 of the Charter clearly sanctions party politics when it says unexpired terms will be filled by precinct committee members of the same political party as the vacating member. By definition, political parties must have caucuses to function as parties. It is those who sanctimoniously write that all meetings must include all council members who are trashing the expressed will of the voters.

Roldo Bartimole said...

The Plain Dealer can't seem to stop itself. It can't get off the corruption train even if there isn't one.

I don't believe I've ever seen a story as overplayed as the onslaught of articles about a private meeting to try to decide who to elect president of the new county council.

The paper seems intent upon wreaking havoc or destroying its own creation before it gets started with its poor editorial decision-making. It's just exasperating.

The Sunday special editorial began, "By any measure, the Cuyahoga County Council is off to a bad start." By any measure? That egregious?

And the blazing Page One headline - way overplayed - with what graphic that looks like a bell's button, or maybe a spittoon. Are reporters each day commanded to come up with a new slant on this overplayed story?

It's time some politicians tell Plain Dealer editors that they don't run the County or City. If they want to, then they should run an editor or two for the offices.

Roldo Bartimole said...

By the way, the reformers decision to cut up the County into small fiefdoms insured this kind of conflict anyway. There will only be more.

Anonymous said...

There was no true violation of law. No one is a sworn elected official. The spirit of openess was compromised and people have the right to be enraged. There are pending trials and people expect more convictions and accusations. People are not trusting county and muni government right now. If this continues, NE Ohio won't have the support to turn this around

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