Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy. Transparency in government lets citizens and voters see what elected officials and their professional staff are up to, and whether they’re all being honest and forthright with the use of our public tax dollars.
Public transparency is what motivated military analyst Daniel Ellsberg to leak 43 volumes of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in 1971.
Those documents made transparent the U.S. military’s analysis of the failing war in Vietnam, exposing the futility of a military action that cost the lives of 58,281 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese on both sides.
Edward Snowden’s “treason” and/or “whistle-blowing” made transparent the operations of the National Security Agency’s spying program, created by the USA PATRIOT Act that had allowed government officials to spy on everyday Americans to such a degree that even some technicians working at NSA sites were reading their ex-girlfriends’ private emails.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
We in the press celebrate Sunshine Week every September, when we honor those acts by journalists and other members of the public to obtain and release government documents that should be public but are being inappropriately held back by governments or officials.
Arizona, for all its flaws and foibles, is an unusually transparent state when it comes to government. The architects of our state’s constitution included several protections not afforded to other states to avoid political abuse and public corruption, which lawmakers from both sides have been trying to claw back since the first legislature met in 1912.
Public documents and records are largely public in Arizona, including court and criminal records, which may surprise migrants from other states not used to way we Arizonans do things: Bluntly and openly.
Given all this above-board fair play here, it’s surprising and distressing that members of our Sedona City Council have chosen to keep secret and to hide from you, their voters, discussions about what they want to see in a replacement for City Manager Karen Osburn after she retires in the spring.
The argument from council members is that they don’t want potential applicants for the job seeing what council may be thinking about what they want in a city manager.
This argument is absurd.
First off, what the city wants is relatively simple: Someone who can do the job, run a staff of about 160 employees and be accountable to the public. If individual council members want to ask for more specific qualifications, then by all means, make those public. The last thing we want is some potential city manager to apply and waste the city’s time when their goals and skills are not aligned with the publicly-stated intentions of the current council.
Secondly, most residents would agree we would want a city manager who does their due diligence, possibly by watching these meetings and learning through the discussions what council wants in an employee.
Council members should be able to sniff out a fabulist and won’t hire one. Council’s fear on this issue reveals more about their own fears and failings than concern with the skill sets of a good self-salesman. If some council members fear they lack the people skills to avoid being easily hornswoggled by a good interviewer, then maybe those members of council shouldn’t be running our city.
Council had also promised to hold public interviews with the applicants for the city’s new Tourism Advisory Board. Council has now reversed course and held those meetings secretly, so we in the public don’t know what they asked about.
They say, again, that this might give unfair advantage to a potential board member. This argument only makes sense when several candidates compete for one position like a city manager and have no incentive to speak to each other. It doesn’t hold water when the discussion is for a mass of unpaid board appointments who will form factions on a board to get it to do what they want.
Certain candidates applied because they have agendas on what the city should do regarding tourism, so unless the candidates are going to be sequestered, there is nothing to prevent these candidates from giving their allies all the questions and council’s responses. This process simply means that independent board candidates — who council should be appointing — are at a disadvantage and we’ll be stuck, again, with the same faces presenting the same tired ideas to be rubber-stamped instead of a heterogeneous and dynamic group with new ideas.
We applaud Sedona City Councilman Pete Furman for arguing that the process should be more transparent, not less. The rest of council shouldn’t have anything to hide — unless they do — but without them meeting in public, we’ll never know what they may want to keep secret.