Legislature shouldn’t undermine transparency

Editorial from the Idaho Falls Post Register

Why is it that every time lawmakers wade into the Idaho Sunshine Law, it’s to reduce government transparency?

It is, of course, annoying to have members of the public crawling through your emails and text messages.

But elected office is a sacred public trust, and it comes at a price.

Privacy is a fundamental right, and it is up to every person whether to give it up. When you enter into the public arena, and particularly when you choose to pursue elected office, you are volunteering to be subject to transparency.

The greatest price of public office in a representative democracy is public accountability. Lawmakers seem to have forgotten that basic fact this year.

Legislation recently introduced by Rep. Megan Blanksma would blow significant holes in the structure of accountability that works to ensure that our representatives are working in our interest rather than their own.

This year’s bill would narrow the beam of sunlight that was shed on state government against its will. Lawmakers did not pass the Idaho Sunshine Law. The voters did it through an initiative. In essence, the law sets up a procedure that allows any member of the public to examine a public official’s emails, text messages and letters, along with records of public spending, public contracts and other public business.

Not everything lawmakers say or write is subject to transparency. Lawmakers’ truly private communications — say, two lawmakers deciding where they should eat lunch — aren’t public record at present. Public records are defined in the Sunshine Law as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct or administration of the public’s business.” So if there’s no public business involved, there’s no public record.

Blanksma’s bill would close off important information that does involve public business.

For example, it would allow lawmakers to redact the identities of members of the public they interact with so long as they aren’t other government officials, registered lobbyists or “representatives of an organization.” This third category is so amorphous that it will allow lawmakers to redact whomever they please.

What counts as an organization? A group of people who have a common business interest in a piece of legislation and are pursuing an organized advocacy effort but who have not taken the step of formally incorporating — would they count as an organization? Or would they have all their information redacted, ensuring they can attempt to influence legislation from the shadows? Since the legislation does not define “organization,” lawmakers will be able to choose whatever definition suits them at a particular moment.

What counts as representation? Could the head of a business who’s pushing a bill that will pad his pocket communicate with lawmakers about that legislation, and then hide it by prefacing all his emails with, “Speaking only for myself…” — the sort of wink-and-nod that lawmakers understand intuitively. Because representation is not defined either, nearly any communication between someone who isn’t an elected official or a registered lobbyist and a lawmaker could be redacted.

Certainly, a member of the public who discloses personal medical information, their Social Security number, or other highly personal information that is not related to the conduct of public business deserves to have that information protected. But by entering into the public fray and attempting to influence policy, they waive their right to remain anonymous. It is standard practice, for example, to require anyone testifying at a public hearing to identify themselves.

Nothing engenders public trust more than a pledge to be public and accountable in office, which is why everyone running for office pledges to be transparent on the campaign trail. And nothing undermines and betrays their trust more than the attempt to hide from public accountability.

Fundamentally, good government means that representatives are working in the public interest. When they use the power that is granted to them by the public to further their own interests, that has a name: corruption.

And corruption thrives in the shadows. Lawmakers should reject Blanksma’s bill and preserve the measures of transparency that keep corruption at bay.

Editorial from the Idaho Falls Post Register

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