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Tuesday, October 6, 2009
If You Want My Vote (Part III)

Principles five and six for local candidates who want me to take them seriously.

This is the third article in a continuing series in which I discuss things local candidates can do if they want me to take them seriously and, yes, possibly even vote for them. As I said in the first installment, this is not Local Candidacy 101. It's remedial. In other words, these are things a candidate should master before showing up for the race.

The principles already discussed (in the first and second articles) are these:

1. Local means local.
2. Show up -- in advance.
3. Get your facts straight.
4. Check your conspiracy theories at the door.

Here are the next two, for discussion here:

5. Know your sunshine laws.
6. Don't just hint darkly at special interests; name names.

5. Know Your Sunshine Laws

On one hand, if I didn't feel the need for more information about and more discussion of local issues especially, I probably wouldn't be blogging. (I would still be opinionated.) On the other hand, I don't think the current crop of local officials in American Fork is trying to do things behind voters' backs.

On one hand, "transparency in government" is more than an idle slogan for modern candidates. It's important at every level of our democratic republic, and it's something of which we need a great deal more from some of our governments. I can't decide whether it's more embarrassing or more laughable that we apparently need legislation to force Capitol Hill's ruling class to make the text of bills available to the public (not to mention themselves) for a few days prior to a vote. The absolute need for pre-vote scrutiny of legislation ought to be self-evident, but such are the times in which we live.

On the other hand, assuming municipal governments in Utah are complying with existing state law, we don't need stricter sunshine laws to insure greater transparency in them. There is very little that a city council can legally do or discuss in executive session, away from the public, and many meetings and agendas have to be publicly "noticed" at least 24 hours in advance.

In practice, I admit, American Fork City struggles, at least institutionally, to understand and practice sensible and effective public relations. The City has also been slow to do some things which serve the cause of transparency, such as posting the entire municipal code on the Web with a reasonable search engine, and providing clear, easy-to-find explanations of City processes, organizational structures, and regulations. But the deficit here is not of law or of willingness to endure public scrutiny. It is a deficit of something else -- one facet of institutional competence, if you will.

It's also true that American Fork's venerable weekly newspaper, the Citizen, is gone now, and the Daily Herald fills the defunct weekly's civic role less satisfactorily, where American Fork is concerned. But even before the Citizen's assimilation, it often (and quite understandably) reported matters after they were decided, not in the early stages of discussion, when there was still time for residents to affect decisions.

So, while plenty of information is available from the City, interested residents have to invest more effort in gathering it than might be ideal. It is not served to us elegantly arranged on silver platters.

Perhaps because we are not all force-fed a daily diet of information about our local government, elected officials in American Fork are accustomed to accusations from residents that they are trying to hide what they're doing. Generally, these days, the accusations are false. Sometimes they're ludicrous. A proposed action can be the subject of numerous articles in the city newsletter, which every water and sewer customer in the city receives with the monthly bill. It can be discussed at multiple town meetings, each reasonably well publicized. It can be the subject of numerous newspaper articles over a period of months. It can be placed on publicly noticed agendas for city council meetings. It can even turn up at some local blog or other. And still some residents will claim that the thing was done in the dark, behind their backs.

I'm not sure there's a cure for the stubborn combination of laziness, paranoia, and naivete that underlies such accusations. We can only hope that such people, if they vote at all, remain a clear minority.

As for you, candidate, if you want me to take you seriously, don't fool yourself into believing that your failure to pay diligent attention to the processes and actions of government is the same as having them hidden from you by malicious government officials.

While we're on the subject, here's a freebie: The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law which applies to the federal government. (I filed one with the Post Office a few years ago.) You don't file a FOIA request to get documents from a local or state government. In Utah, if that's what you want, it's a GRAMA request. That's short for Government Records Access and Management Act, which is a state law. Besides that anonymous chair in the council chamber at City Hall, where you sometimes sit to watch and listen, GRAMA is your best friend, if you think your local government is inclined to hide things. You really should know your best friend's name.

6. Don't Just Hint Darkly at Special Interests; Name Names

Another tired trope in local campaigns is this business of special interests. Among less reflective candidates, a special interest is simply something your opponent cares about, but you don't. In the adult political world, it can be much more insidious: undue influence by some lobby -- say, widget manufacturers -- over a government official, which causes that official to act for the good of that special interest, as opposed to acting in the general interest.

For example, if President Obama really agreed to gut Medicare Advantage in exchange for AARP's support of ObamaCare, or if he really did promise the big pharmaceutical companies that he would only slightly limit their profits if they would support his plan, he's serving a special interest -- that is, unless you're one of those lefties for whom any means to the end of nationalized health care by definition serves the general interest.

Special interests happen, you might say, and so do related abuses. I don't deny this. They can happen at any level of government. They can be a very serious problem. Lobbyists are the popular villains here -- except that, if they're on your side, they're not lobbyists, are they? They're concerned citizens. In any case, before you throw the baby out with the bath water, stop and consider the US Constitution. It doesn't approve bribery or influence peddling, but lobbying is protected by the First Amendment, as you will see if you read that brief amendment to the end. It's called there "petitioning the government."

I'm not saying that special interests should never be an issue in your local campaign. If they are really a problem, they should be an issue. But if you plan to argue that you will serve the public interest, while your opponent will serve or has been serving special interests, you'd better come prepared to name names and present evidence. (By the way, campaign contributions are shaky evidence at best. They don't stand on their own.) If you prove unwilling or unable to make your case, I'll likely think you're just a coward trying to push voters' buttons. The most charitable thing I might think is that you have trouble seeing local government clearly through your federal-colored glasses.

Perhaps the point deserves to be repeated. If you want to be our leader, show us that you are a vertebrate and are capable of careful thought and disciplined study. Either explain who will do -- or is already doing -- what for whom, and how you know, and what they're getting in return . . . or don't waste my time whining that your opponent is a puppet of special interests.

That's all for now, but for this final note: I am under no illusions that candidates will henceforth adhere scrupulously to these principles, just because I try to articulate them. The good candidates already do, with (in most cases) no input from me. And some of the bad ones will get elected from time to time, too, but you don't have to be one, and you certainly don't have to vote for any.

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