Last Friday night, I muffed an opportunity to extol the need for strong public records and open meetings laws.
The occasion was the Arkansas Press Association’s annual convention, where I received the APA’s Freedom of Information Award, which is given each year to someone who fights to keep publicly funded organizations transparent and accountable to the public. The award can be given for specific actions or for a body of work.
My membership on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition and the FOI committees of both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Associated Press Media Editors and my term as SPJ president in 2012-2013 likely played a part in the APA’s decision to recognize me.
The plaque – a gold-colored, topographically accurate outline of Arkansas against a red background – was presented after several APA members received awards for outstanding service or for 50 years of service in the newspaper business and gave strong, and sometimes funny, acceptance speeches.
I was totally unprepared to speak, and my usual gift for improvisation seemed to desert me.
I told a disjointed and mercifully truncated story of how I came to be an accidental journalist and spoke about an indelible image from my early career when I covered the Terrebonne Parish Police Jury in Louisiana.
The police jurors (think county commissioners, only worse) met at a large table facing each other in an old courtroom. Citizens who had business before the jury or simply wanted to observe democracy in action sat several feet away, separated from the police jurors by the courtroom’s bar.
No microphones insured that the white guys gathered around the table could hold private discussions about the agenda items. Any documents in their meeting packets were not routinely shared with the public or the reporters in attendance.
I told my audience last weekend that my passion for openness in government can be traced to that scene: “Twelve guys sitting around a table making decisions about other people’s lives” with no concern about letting the public in on the decision-making.
And then I shut up, said thank you again and returned to my seat.
But I could and should have said a few more things.
I could have said that keeping government open and public officials accountable requires constant action as well as vigilance.
I should have said that open records and open meetings laws routinely come under attack, especially during legislative sessions and especially since Sept. 11, 2001. The creeping militarization of our police forces and the spreading excuse of “security” to support secrecy at all levels of government are especially troubling.
I could have said that public officials and corporate bosses who boast about their “transparency” usually are using double-speak and more than likely are opaque when it comes to keeping the public informed.
I should have mentioned specifically the battle the Democrat-Gazette waged last year to force openness on the self-proclaimed transparent administration of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
The issue itself – millions of dollars in overspending by the university’s fundraising arm – was minor in the larger scheme of public corruption, police misconduct and life-threatening official secrecy.
But the university’s obstinacy in not releasing a treasurer’s report on the overspending and its refusals in the past to simply comply with the state Freedom of Information Act bred distrust of its motives.
The newspaper sued for access to the treasurer’s report. The university relented after a couple of days but never backed off its contention that the report comprised a personnel evaluation that was exempt from the FOIA. Instead it claimed that the employees mentioned in the report
I could have said the newspapers as institutions often are less than transparent when dealing with their readers and customers.
I should have said that my work on behalf of freedom of information would not be possible if not for the unwavering support of the Democrat-Gazette’s leadership team, specifically Managing Editor David Bailey, WEHCO Media president Nat Lea and Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr.
But I digress. The important message I needed to impart to the audience was this:
Democracy dies when secrecy reigns. And right now I fear secrecy has the upper hand.