Dec. 16, 2002
by Randy Brown
The post-election nightmare of public meetings being closed to the public seems to be over. The secret meetings of Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius' five budget-review teams have ended on a typically mysterious note.
That's about as good as the news gets on Ms. Sebelius' initiative, one that's crucial to the future of Kansas. And there's so much bad news about open government in this story it's hard to know where to start.
But how about this:
Too many citizens don't think that Ms. Sebelius' decision to commit this budget-review process to secrecy was a nightmare - because too many citizens think that open government is a kind of media scam designed to generate sensational stories for print and broadcast.
That's especially bad news because open government is the only way citizens can find out if their government agencies - their city councils, county commissions, schools boards, law enforcement agencies, courts, state lawmakers, boards, commissions and budget-review teams - are working properly and in the public interest. Open government, in truth and in fact, is essential to a democratic society.
Ms. Sebelius is hardly the first well-meaning public official to decide that secrecy is really good for the public. But she is an odd fit in the role of someone who would keep the media and the public out of 18 meetings focused on the critical issue of how the state spends the tax money it collects from citizens. As Kansas Insurance Commissioner, Ms. Sebelius built a strong and well-deserved reputation as a consumer advocate. And the biggest and most important group of consumers in Kansas would seem to be the taxpayers who paid for the budget-review meetings.
Government officials often create bizarre reasons to justify secrecy. The Sebelius administration's argument - that leaders and staff members of state agencies would not be able to speak freely at the meetings if media types and just-plain citizens were allowed inside the tent - certainly fits into the realm of the bizarre.
• First, aren't we talking about basic public business here?
• Second, if public officials can't speak freely in public about public budgets, public agencies, public programs and public priorities, they should find other work.
Government officials who find openness a problem often point out that it's messy and often painful, and that it can be terribly time-consuming and inconvenient.
About this, they are right.
Democracy can be a messy business. And it definitely was not created for the convenience of public officials.
Randy Brown, Senior Fellow in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University and former Wichita Eagle editorial page editor, is president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government. The Sunshine Coalition is a non-profit, grassroots organization dedicated to improving public awareness of the importance of open government in Kansas. For more information, visit www.sunshinecoalition.com.
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