A retreat to secrecy

Published 10:26 am Saturday, June 13, 2009

When it comes to open, transparent government, this First Amendment practitioner is an unrepentant, died-in-the-wool believer. Perhaps even a bit radical.

Though federal and state lawmakers have written much longer lists, I can count on one hand the occasions that justify secrecy in government:

■ When dissemination of information would threaten our nation’s security or the lives of our military personnel abroad.

■ When the reputation of a civil servant who is not a public figure — for example, a beat cop or classroom teacher — would be irreparably harmed.

■ When the taxpayers’ liability in a lawsuit would be compromised.

There might be another justification or two that don’t immediately come to mind, but my point is that secrecy should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances.

Interviewing a prospective political appointee is not one of those occasions.

Unfortunately, the Franklin City Council, which took a huge step toward more openness and transparency in its handling of school board appointments earlier this year, has retreated to the shadows and back rooms on a matter of extreme public interest and importance.

A notice from City Hall on Friday declared that council members will twice huddle behind closed doors next week to interview candidates for three seats on the school board. A few days later, we the citizenry will have three school board members foisted upon us without a clue about their philosophy on public education, how they would expend our tax dollars, their vision for Franklin city schools, or even what basic qualifications they possess for the position.

One could argue that no institution is more important to this community’s long-range viability and prosperity than its public schools. Their well-being is in the vested interest of every child, parent and taxpayer. By extension, one could argue that no political position is more important than that of the policymaker who presides over and governs those schools.

Enveloping the appointment of those policymakers in a shroud of secrecy shuts out important stakeholders. It also breeds distrust by those who believe that school board appointments in this city have become more about cronyism and racial preferences than finding those who truly are best qualified to govern our public schools.

Friends whom I respect believe that secrecy is justified. They blame the silly uproar over David Benton’s comments during his interview for the school board last winter on the fact that the hearing was open to the public. Never mind that the two most important people who were offended by Benton’s comments — council members Mary Hilliard and Rosa Lawrence — would have heard them, been equally offended and said so publicly even had the interview been behind closed doors.

The utopian state of “racial harmony,” while an admirable pursuit, is no justification for shutting the citizenry out of arguably the most important decisions this City Council will ever make. Besides, it’s a misnomer that race relations will magically be hunky dory if we simply stop talking about race and ignore the elephant in the room of nearly every public-policy discussion in this community.

Racial understanding comes from dialog and candor — not from pretending that all is perfect. If this community can’t have a spirited debate about whether “chicken dinners” is offensive to black people, heaven help us as a biracial citizenry who will sink or swim together.

It’s certainly no reason to discard one of the bedrock principles on which our republic has flourished: the right of the people to see their government operate and to participate in its decision-making.