It’s always a surprise to hear political leaders who are elected to do the public’s business say that’s exactly what they want to do — but they want to do it in private, thank you very much.
No nosy citizens should be messing around in the public’s business when keeping it secret is the best way to accomplish it, they tell us.
Now it’s happened again, and Gov. LePage (who was elected to do the public’s business) doesn’t seem to get it that the public’s business, damn it, is public.
You know you’ve accomplished something when groups with viewpoints as varied as the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Maine Heritage Policy Center can agree on something — and the thing they agree on is that LePage has made a big mistake.
That is exactly what he has done by creating a new business advisory council to give him input on improving Maine’s economic climate — and then exempting its deliberations from the provisions of the state’s right-to-know statute.
That law, the Freedom of Access Act, states, “Except as otherwise provided by statute or by Section 405, all public proceedings must be open to the public, any person must be permitted to attend any public proceeding and any public record or minutes of such proceedings that are required by law must be made promptly and must be open to public inspection.”
The exceptions are limited, but permit elected or appointed bodies to go into “executive session” by a majority vote under some very specific circumstances.
Those protected topics generally cover circumstances where disclosure of sensitive information may harm an individual’s reputation or where contract negotiations or consultations with an attorney are involved. Discussions of materials kept confidential by other laws are also protected.
LETTER VERSUS SPIRIT
Beyond that, everything is intended to be open under the law. It is true that the governor has the legal power to provide an exception for a group of people gathered by executive order to advise him on policy decisions — but he is making a substantial error in exercising it.
Indeed, the advice he gets and turns into public policy is exactly the sort of thing that the spirit of the law is intended to cover, so that policies aren’t created in secret that may be detrimental to some members of the public.
People have a right to have a say in how they are governed, and this is exactly the situation where their comments are not only appropriate, they are necessary to a democratic form of government. This, on the other hand, is offensive to it.
The panel isn’t just composed of private advice-givers, either. Its membership includes the commissioners of several state departments, including Economic and Community Development and Labor, as well as the presidents of the University of Maine System and the Community College System.
The order provides for a total of up to 21 members, so other officials could also be on the panel.
LePage is not the first chief executive to establish such a commission, but his executive order is the first to say that the need for “candid conversations” requires that its deliberations be exempt from the FOA law.
This is an old and discredited excuse for governmental secrecy. Citizens have been told before that in order to get honest advice, the views of the advice-giver can’t be made generally known.
Long and bitter experience has shown, however, that the price paid for secrecy is always too high.
WHISPERED IN THE DARKNESS
People need to ask their representatives what views there could possibly be that they want to have whispered to them in darkness that can’t be said to them loudly and clearly in the light of day. Whatever those views are, that means it quite possibly won’t be good advice at all.
And this panel isn’t the only one. Gov. LePage has said he plans a total of four such bodies, with the other three dealing with the environment, higher education and teachers.
Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with the governor wanting advice from interested parties on any or all of these topics. In fact, there’s much to be said for the process and for his willingness to seek input from a broad variety of sources.
The problem is that every Mainer has the right — if not under the law, then under the guiding ideals and principles of democratic government — to know who is saying what to whom on an official panel about the way the state should be run.
The situation is not without irony. On the heels of this announcement, we discover that Gov. LePage recently signed a proclamation declaring next week as “Sunshine Week” as part of a national initiative promoting openness in state government.
Perhaps the governor needs to cue up the Fifth Dimension and listen to the music one more time: Let the sun shine in, Gov. LePage. It’s healthy, for people and for politics.