I’m always impressed when I see reasonable people demonstrate a willingness to reevaluate an opinion and change it. It indicates functional intellect at work.
In this editorial, they basically say that it’s time for Mr. Wright to go by any means necessary, even if that means that he’s forced out by a recall.
This change in position comes in the wake of Mr. Wright’s decision, with the support of his usual cronies on city council, in what can only be described as a flagrantly unconstitutional, and frankly un-American move to try and muzzle his fellow council members by threatening to fine them if they speak publicly on matters he doesn’t want them to.
Elimination of transparency within government is reaching epidemic proportion. It permeates far beyond the boundaries of Portsmouth and, in my opinion, is perhaps the second greatest threat that our democracy faces (the first being the metastatic corrosion of government by the influence of money).
Mr. Wright has become pathologically averse to public scrutiny and feedback. His open outward hostility towards and lack of interaction with news organizations is disturbing at best. He saw a recent sit-down interview with a local TV reporter as nothing more than an opportunity to outwardly and flagrantly attack the media.
Public approval for the work of news organizations has been steadily falling, and with so much truly craven infotainment masquerading as journalism, this attitude isn’t completely unfounded. But anyone who thinks a democracy can survive without the kind of work done by journalists is ignorant to the lessons of history.
If journalists aren’t around to peel back the curtain of secrecy that people like Mr. Wright and his cronies attempt to hide behind, who will? And do you really want politicians operating with no scrutiny at all?
On top of trying to stifle his fellow council members, Mr. Wright and his cabal have also decided it’s best to not have to listen to the unwashed masses who choose to show up at public city council meetings wanting to have their say. So, they’ve cut the amount of time citizens have to speak from five to three minutes.
At this point, I keep expecting Wright to begin showing up at council meeting fondling a couple of steel balls in his hand. (Obscure classic movie reference).
I remain truly baffled about how the apparent majority of Portsmouth’s citizens can remain so apathetic to the behavior of their elected representatives. Who will they try to assign blame to when they finally realize just how much damage Wright and his allies have done?
As the editorial points out in its last sentence: “Wright must explain himself and change his ways. Otherwise, whether by election, resignation or recall, he should go.”
But of course, Portsmouth isn’t the only local entity where we’re seeing this erosion of transparency in government, nor the only level. We’ve seen how lack of ability to scrutinize public/private partnerships in Norfolk has led to several truly heinous deals resulting in them green-lighting projects that serve the interests of developers – not its citizens.
I can also tell you from personal experience that public safety agencies–particularly those engaged in law enforcement–have adopted a siege mentality when it comes to releasing information to the media so they can do their job of reporting to the public. In fact, some local police departments now routinely ignore media inquiries–particularly on weekends–about incidents that citizens have more than a right to know about.
But perhaps worse is what’s happening at the state level. In this staff editorial, the writer(s) emote extensively about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and how the McAuliffe administration is actively ignoring provisions of the law to shield public agencies from having to release any information that might prove to be embarrassing or put their actions and behavior in a bad light.
One instance cited in the editorial is that of the case of Martese Johnson – the UVA student who was arrested in a particularly violent manner by state liquor control agents.
As the editorial points out: “In the months that followed, prosecutors dropped the charges – obstruction of justice and swearing or being drunk in public – against Johnson. A state police investigation, according to ABC officials, showed agents didn’t violate department policies.”
The McAuliffe administration has vehemently resisted releasing any information about their investigation, citing FOIA exemptions that frankly only exist in their paranoid little minds.
As experts on FOIA have repeatedly pointed out, the only thing preventing the administration from releasing the results of their investigation is their own desire to avoid scrutiny. Absolutely nothing in FOIA exempts the information from being subject to public release. These politicians and public officials are exploiting two things – the ignorance of citizens about what records should and should not be public, and the contempt of many people for the media.
As with Mr. Wright, demonization of the media leads some to think journalists are just muckraking and trying to find something juicy to drive up ratings and page hits. I suppose that the behavior of some media outlets makes such accusations not completely unwarranted. But, as I’ve already pointed out, if you think that siding with government to keep their business secret instead of allowing journalists to do their jobs by reporting in a way that keeps our elected officials honest is a good thing, you are truly inflicting damage on our democracy.
FOIA is the instrument by which we can see that those we choose to represent us are actually doing so. I for one will never ever blindly trust any public official. We should support every effort – whether by ethical politicians, or organizations such as the ACLU to ensure that FOIA and the spirit of open records and public disclosure is standard practice in government.
Of course, FOIA isn’t the only mechanism in place to force disclosure of information that should be available to the public. We also have a body of laws and regulations related to elections in place to ensure that we know certain things – particularly those related to money associated with the people running for public office.
In an interview that Kerry Dougherty referred to in one of her columns (but which I disturbingly can’t find online), the Pilot pointed out that Gary McCollum (right), a senior vice-president with Cox Communications who is challenging incumbent Frank Wagner for his state senate seat, has continued to collect his not insignificant income from Cox even though, as he says, he hasn’t actually been doing any work for them since January when he decided to step away to campaign full time.
Neither Mr. McCollum nor representatives from Cox have been able to offer a clear explanation for exactly what this means. McCollum told Dougherty that he is “not with the company,” even though his Statement of Economic Interest, which he filed on March 25, lists Cox as his employer. He apparently also told the reporter who interviewed him that if he wins in November, he’ll retire from Cox and that his accruing salary will be “some kind of retroactive severance pay.”
With all due respect to McCollum and Cox, their explanations stink to high heaven. Whether intentionally or not, it gives the appearance that Cox is actually compensating McCollum to run for public office. How could anyone not assume that Cox hopes to have a paid advocate sitting in the state senate?
Mr. McCollum and Cox owe the electorate a much clearer explanation of their ongoing relationship, and Mr. McCollum should forgo receiving his salary as he does nothing to earn it while he runs for public office. Propriety demands it.
Of course, I once again have to emphasize that such behavior can only happen when voters fail to exercise their civic responsibilities. The electorate should do their due diligence and reject any elected official who thinks they’re above behaving in an open and transparent way while claiming to serve the public’s interest. You should assume that if they think their business needs to be conducted in secret, what you think is right and what they think is right probably aren’t in sync.
Cited in this column:
(Mike Rau has noticed that summer is coming to an end, dammit)