Heed county’s sham request: broaden open government
Written by Michael Lewis on February 12, 2014
A call to open more state lawmaking to view won near-unanimous Miami-Dade commission approval last week. It was so on target that you’d wish they meant it.
Unfortunately, it was all a clumsy swat at Tallahassee by commissioners who feel burdened by having to meet in public rather than a closed back room.
Commissioners called on the state House and Senate to change rules so legislators can’t pair off to cut deals. Both state chambers ban meetings of three or more legislators but not pairs.
That’s not the case in local governments. Decades-old state sunshine laws require notice before two county or city lawmakers talk public business, and the public can sit in.
Openness is a local government strength. If we don’t always think highly of what commissioners do, at least we can always view them in action. Any backroom deal would be illegal.
It’s not pretty. The old joke is that nobody should see two things made: sausage and laws. But thank goodness Floridians are ensured the right to see local laws cobbled together.
The sham resolution offered with a wink by Barbara Jordan asks Tallahassee to give us the same right at the state level.
Transparency in government is priceless, although commissioners in sending the message to the legislature bemoaned its difficulties.
“Do you know how long we’re sitting here today because I could not ask a commissioner a simple question [in private], so I have to ask it in public, a question like what do you mean by this?” lamented Lynda Bell during discussion of the resolution last week.
The open government requirement in Florida, she moaned, is “probably the strictest in the nation.”
“We’re the only state in the nation” with this requirement, Ms. Jordan said.
“I think that the state representatives have not taken the time to learn how handicapped we are here locally” by the ban on private talks by two commissioners, Mr. Jordan complained. “I don’t understand why they exempted themselves if they think it’s such a great thing, and I think they need to have the integrity and step up to the plate.”
Yes, the state should have the integrity – not to permit backroom deals in counties and cities but to prohibit them at the state level too.
At every level of government, the public needs to hear the answer to the question Commissioner Bell longed to ask in private: What do you mean by this? What question is more central to the public good? So why in heaven’s name allow it in private?
Commissioner Sally Heyman, a former state legislator, said the ability to meet one on one built consensus in Tallahassee and got more done, and besides the county spends too much to notify the public in advance when two commissioners huddle.
She’s right: it’s more efficient to cut deals behind the curtain, and it does cost money to let the public know what’s happening.
It’s even more efficient to simply issue edicts and do away with democratic processes altogether. Dictatorships are cheapest, and lawmaking is a snap.
Democracy is slow, messy and expensive – but far cheaper than the human costs of any other system.
Commissioners acknowledged that the county’s resolution was a ploy.
“We’re trying to pull their ears symbolically knowing that this is never going to pass in Tallahassee,” Xavier Suarez explained the true message in the call for transparency.
Further, Jean Monestime said he really didn’t want the resolution, which he voted for, to help alter state procedures, because “as a Christian, I don’t wish to others what’s not good to me.”
Only Juan Zapata voted no, but merely not to annoy Tallahassee, where he once chaired the county’s delegation. Pulling the lion’s tail, he implied, can anger a powerful lion.
But while the commission’s call for more transparency in Tallahassee was really a bid for less in Miami, one former state senator on the commission sought more openness.
“There seems not enough transparency in this county of ours,” Javier Souto said before a commission vote that day to allow a backroom deal between former competitors for development at Zoo Miami.
Miami Today of course favors more transparency and opposes any step toward private local meetings. It’s our business to air what goes on in public meetings.
But it’s not about us. We’re stand-ins for those who didn’t attend. If commissioners air less in public because they’ve tied up messy loose ends in private, it’s the public that loses vital insight.
We do empathize with commissioners: at $6,000, they’re unfairly paid for long hours of talk. Meetings extended to cover what could be done faster in private don’t raise that pay.
We’d happily multiply commission pay – but we’d fear losing even a minute of public debate that should never be private. Who knows what really goes on in a closed huddle?
The county resolution was a sham to twist the lion’s tale, but it’s still right: state meetings should be as open as local meetings, and local meetings should remain wide open. Period.