Who Watches the Watchmen?
Christopher D. Berger
Wednesday’s tax day tea parties had a cause mirroring those of the original Boston tea party, to whit, a government so invasive and unwieldy that it can perpetrate generational theft on the order of tens of trillions of dollars, with no one to stop them. They were there to demonstrate against the ability of government to tax our grandchildren into oblivion, and more importantly, the fact that government is effectively doing it with mind-numbingly large spending packages. They were there to protest taxation with representation that doesn’t listen to them, representation that doesn’t represent their interests, taxation that they don’t want, don’t need, and will be forced to pay anyway.
They were there to protest an attitude in Washington and governmental seats all over the country that the people are post-election irrelevancies who can be made to pay whatever the government wants to spend by making the tax code and spending measures so blindingly complex, arcane, and indecipherable that no one will be able to tell the difference. 236 years after the tea party in Boston Harbor, a government of our elected ‘representatives’ is showing the same disregard for the will of the people and acting in the same imperialistic, despotic manner as regards the tax dollars of those they serve.
The primary lynch pin in a responsible system of government is that it be accountable to the people it purports to serve; when it ceases to do that, the moral hazard is induced. A level of transparency currently absent at almost every level of government coupled with a certain level of civic awareness on the part of the citizenry is necessary to make this accountability happen, and government bodies throughout this country have, purposely or not, made their dealings so obscure that one practically has to have a degree in law or finance and several weeks of unfettered time to make it out, thus preserving the appearance of transparency (since the documents are all available to the public) while eliminating anything beyond that.
I could site to you a number of instances of this, most notably the ‘stimulus’ package that was rushed through Congress before even its members had a chance to read it, but I would like instead to focus for the time being on something more local. For a variety of reasons, I rarely involve myself in local political fights, but it seems appropriate that I should do so today. Local and state government officials, elected or appointed, of today are the federal government officials of tomorrow, and the attitude they demonstrate in local government is generally quite indicative of the attitude they will demonstrate at higher levels of government.
This discussion is doubly appropriate because the site of the transgression is also the site of one of Kansas City’s tea parties, Johnson County Community College. In February, one of the trustees there, Ben Hodge, released to the press a list of proposed budget cuts which had been distributed and discussed (albeit briefly) in an executive session of the board of trustees, distribution of which was then explicitly embargoed. Hodge believed, I think rightly, that the distribution and discussion of the list in closed session, as well as the instructed secrecy, violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA, for short, which makes provision for closing budgetary discussions only in matters of real estate and personel), and that he was therefore well within his purview and, in fact, legal responsibilities, to provide the information to members of the public upon request, which he did when asked about it by a reporter for the Kansas City Star a week later.
The college president, Dr. Terry Calaway, and the Chairwoman of the Board, Shirley Brown-VanArsdale, have since accused Hodge of leaking confidential information to score cheap political points, but they can’t seem to keep their stories straight. In a letter to employees of the college, President Calaway said that “a brainstormed list of potential cost-saving measures was discussed” in that closed session, yet he subsequently told a reporter in Gardener that “there wasn’t any discussion about this material”, and Chairwoman VanArsdale told the same reporter, “There was no discussion on the budget.”
Personally, I am inclined to believe the earlier statements, those made before the whole thing blew up in the board’s faces, and think that there was discussion, but either way, what constitutes “discussion” is not well defined in the law, and could be easily interpreted to include printed or electronically distributed materials or, under a more restrictive interpretation, to exclude them. The officers of the board would rather interpret it to refer exclusively to verbal discussions, but either way, it seems clear that the executive session should have ended the minute the budget proposal was brought forward, lest discussion should ensue, and by not doing so, the board violated the spirit of the law, if not the letter.
What particularly disturbs me about this incident, however, is not the possible KOMA violation but the reaction of the officers of the board to it. After a long chain of attempts to silence Hodge, including the board’s attorney Mark Ferguson conducting a sham review of the incident and finding nothing there (though he didn’t bother mentioning his investigation to Hodge) they have now threatened a defamation lawsuit if he doesn’t shut. The suit itself would be specious; to support a claim of defamation, Ferguson would have to be able to prove false the charge of unethical behavior, something which seems absurd on its face, and prove that Hodge’s charges were intentionally and maliciously false. Whatever their problems with Hodge, Calaway’s and VanArsdale’s very public condemnation of his actions under a reasonable interpretation of the law in the face of their own failings leaves one wondering under what rubric they account their behavior in this matter as ethical, and this threatened lawsuit does nothing but further the point with its obvious speciousness.
This attempted silencing of a member of the JCCC Board of Trustees is precisely the sort of arrogant behavior the tea parties Wednesday were about, a fact which seems lost on the media. It is impossible to have an open and accountable government when its members, even at the lowest levels (and certainly at the highest) work so hard to hush it up, gutting the spirit of the law and the principle while paying lip service to its letter. Our elected officials have been empowered to watch over and safeguard our liberty and prosperity, not destroy it. But if they will not make the budgetary process transparent, and in fact do everything in their power to obfuscate it, how are we the people to watch the watchmen?
So I say to all those who attended the tea parties, and all those who wished they could: if you want to stop the insanity in Washington, first put your local governmental house in order. You’ll be surprised at just how fast Washington falls in line.
Read more writings by Christopher Berger at UnvarnishedOpinion.com and KansasProgress.com.