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Latham: Open government key to a democracy

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When last I visited East Mountain, Betty Davis was still chief cook and bottle washer — along with being in charge of the police department and filling the role of city administrator.

She also might have been chief planner on ways to keep public information out of reach of the, uh, public, but I cannot verify that, and it will probably always be a secret.

All manner of information now is bubbling to the surface, sort of what like happens to a poorly designed septic system after a sustained rainfall. All the wishing that can be done won't stop the slop.

This is the sort of government in which "the people" had no real place, no matter what the law (or Abraham Lincoln) said. It was not of the people, by the people or for the people. It existed for the convenience of the few at the expense of the many.

When I say "expense," I am talking about real dollars proffered up by honest taxpayers with the money apparently spent (read: wasted) on non-governmental purposes such as birthday parties for employees, lunches in establishments from North Texas to Louisiana and extra pay to employees and their families.

Ironically, most of the people doing the spending probably consider themselves conservatives who would howl like banshees if they discovered every federal employee got a cake on their birthday.

Perhaps it will change now, but there are no guarantees. Even with Davis gone, those who pull the strings — and hold the purse-strings — are not being overly cooperative with efforts to let the sun shine in.

This, friends, is government behind closed doors. Had the voters of East Mountain known their money was being used in such a manner, they would have protested vigorously. That, of course, is precisely why all of this was done in the dark. Government officials too often hate it when the unwashed masses demand an accounting for what is being done in their names and with their money.

But the public's nose belongs squarely in the middle of the business of a city council or it belongs no place at all. No one can claim defense secrets are at risk, no trademark information, no nasty income tax returns to be leaked.

This is democracy where it begins, if it is allowed to begin at all. In East Mountain, officials tried to stop the growth in curiosity in just about every way possible short of spraying individual residents with Roundup. Sorry I gave them that idea. It might be next.

If you are one of those demanding information, good for you. Don't stop now, with a possible victory in sight. Be prepared, though, because those few who want to stop the flow of free information have more tricks and delaying tactics up their sleeves.

I doubt that even when all is revealed anyone is going to prison because of improprieties. Some might be embarrassed by what is revealed, and a few people might lose their jobs or be voted out of office.

This isn't so much about law-breaking, it is about control. And information is the key to controlling almost any situation. When all people are given access to all information, those in power might lose their mojo. It's their worst nightmare even when it means just losing control over East Mountain.

This is why we have laws requiring open meetings and open records and why they must be enforced. Occasionally, it takes people demanding enforcement for it to happen.

One other thing: With the leadership at the Gregg County level, I find it difficult to imagine any elected official is trying to keep information out of the hands of the public. Officeholders should know, though, that they are responsible for seeing their employees follow the law — and the spirit of the law — fully. If someone is not complying they need instruction — or perhaps another job.

Open government isn't a secondary consideration. It is a primary function. No official at any level should ever forget that.

— Phil Latham is editor emeritus of the News-Journal. His column appears Wednesday. Email

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Psalm 37:4

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