“Difference of opinion leads to inquiry, and inquiry to the truth.”
–Thomas Jefferson, 1815
I find it fascinating that people – depending upon position and perspective – can see the same issue from distinctly different viewpoints. For instance, those who hold lofty public positions and elevate themselves above those who elected them have a different line of sight from those of us down here in the trenches.
In Volusia County, there is a supreme third perspective – the views of those known colloquially as our “Rich & Powerful” – the oligarchical insiders who trade in local politicians like cheap livestock each election season – then use their purchased clout to shape public policy.
As a result, the always self-serving vision of our uber-wealthy overseers is the only one that matters.
As outsiders peering into the inner sanctum of local governments through the greasy window in the fortified portcullis that separates us from those who accept public funds ostensibly to serve in the public interest – we are forced to use scripted public meetings to catch a glimpse of where our haughty “leadership” stand on the pressing issues of the day.
With the advent of paid government mouthpieces, “communications managers” and “public information directors” – who sanitize and condense “the message” into expressionless press releases while running interference for public administrators – these stilted biweekly theatrical productions by the Volusia County Council and various municipal commissions are the only knothole we have left.
Over time, it has become painfully apparent that most official decisions are a foregone conclusion – hashed out ahead of time in the city or county managers office or based solely on the safety of a “staff recommendation” – reducing the need for public input or strategic thought on the important issues.
This homogenized decision-making process excludes differing opinions from the debate – reducing public policy considerations to an exercise in rubber-stamping the behind-the-scenes “suggestions” of those with a financial chip in the game.
Look, don’t get me wrong – secrecy simplifies things.
However, as taxpayers, we should have an equal voice on how our money is spent – and some meaningful input in legislative and policy decisions that directly affect our lives and livelihoods.
It’s true. “Information is the currency of power,” and ensuring the people’s ‘right to know’ is the central purpose of Florida’s venerated (yet increasingly eroded) public records and open meetings laws.
Recently, this growing culture of secrecy became problematic when the City of Deltona willingly entered the high stakes game of attracting an Amazon distribution center – and the adage ‘knowledge is power’ became more than just a worn proverb.
Now, the long-suffering community is embroiled in yet another controversy as city commissioners ask why some members were provided advance information – and others were not.
Meanwhile, no one mentions that the good citizens of Deltona were asked to pony up millions in tax incentives before knowing who – or what – they were luring to town. . .
In my view, increasingly, our local governments are falling victim to what Fritz Schwarz, chief counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice, has called “the seduction of secrecy,” and everyone will agree that an informed citizenry is democracy’s best defense.
So, why are We, The People being treated like mushrooms: Kept in the dark and fed bullshit?
I mean, the lengths to which some government offices will go to avoid answering legitimate questions from citizens and reporters – such as where millions in public funds have been spent – are becoming too obvious to ignore.
The working press, who, despite having some trust issues of their own, still hold an important watchdog role over the often-self-serving nature of government, and should be provided reasonable access to investigate and report on the maneuverings and motivations of those who hold power over us.
That always gets messy – as it should.
Our elected and appointed officials derive their authority from the will of the people – in other words, they work for us – or at least they should.
Somehow, in Volusia County, those well-defined roles have been reversed.
This sense of remoteness between the average citizen and those we elect to serve our interests, is becoming institutionalized, an accepted part of what passes for local governance in the new decade, an environment where public policy is formed in seclusion.
Especially when public officials seem to completely ignore that the “trust issue” even exists.
This summer, when incumbent politicians come out of their bunkers in the Ivory Tower of Power to shake our hands, slap our backs and ask for another bite at the apple, please take a minute to ask them when those of us who pay the bills and suffer in silence became an afterthought?
Ask them why they sold their souls for a cameo in a staged play that no longer bears any resemblance to a representative democracy – or service in the public interest?
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