Thursday, June 29, 2006

Securing those unalienable rights

Why is it that government’s knee-jerk reaction is to keep things under wraps — even when there’s no obvious reason?

Riverhead Supervisor Phil Cardinale says that transparency in government is a lynch pin of his administration, essential to “putting Riverhead first.” He talks a good game, but sometimes, when it comes to walking the walk, he falls flat on his face.

In his first administration, Phil’s stumbling block in open government was the Wilpon deal — the subject of far too many closed-door sessions. This time around, it’s the Pulte plan. Both proposals would have housing built at EPCAL. Both are controversial. And in both instances, Mr. Open Government was all too happy to hold meetings behind closed doors, out of the hearing of the press and public, and quite arguably in violation of the state’s open meetings law. When it comes right down to it, Phil can trample the public’s right to know just as well as the next guy — or, in Riverhead, the last guy, who ran town government like he was head of the CIA, not town supervisor.

Oh, irony of ironies that Councilman Ed Densieski has become our watchdog for open government, calling Phil on illegally convening executive sessions to discuss things like housing at EPCAL that should be discussed in an open forum.

Last week in The Suffolk Times we reported that the Southold Town Board convened an executive session to discuss the possible acquisition of the Peconic School. True, the state’s open meetings law allows for a closed session to discuss the proposed acquisition of real estate, but only “if publicity would substantially affect the value of the property under consideration.” In other words, if letting out word that the government is interested in buying a property means the owner will jack up the asking price, the government is justified in keeping its intentions hush-hush. Makes sense.

That clearly wasn’t the case with the Town Board’s discussion of the Peconic School. The Southold school district already knows the town is interested. The price will be set by an appraisal to determine the property’s fair market value. Why the secrecy?

True, this isn’t a really big deal and I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a molehill. Nor do I mean to imply that the Southold Town Board is up to no good. I doubt that’s the case.

It’s just that government bodies have a tendency to go behind closed doors whenever they can, just because they can — as long as they can get away with it. If the call can go either way, you rarely see a board decide in favor of openness. Why? It’s almost as if they’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s the public’s business they’re discussing. Openness should be the default mode, not something that happens when government is forced into it.

The Pulte Homes and Peconic School discussion are just small examples of a disturbing trend in post 9/11 America, land of the formerly free. Our government has too many secrets. Open government laws — enacted largely in response to the Watergate scandal some 30 years ago — are being eroded and the American free press is under attack.

And that’s not hyperbole.

In post-9/11 America, the notion of homeland security is used to suppress everything from transcripts of Congressional proceedings to our local emergency preparedness plan. We’re not allowed to have access to the government’s plans for response to a major hurricane, because if those plans fall into the wrong hands — the local Qaeda cell, say — who knows what disaster, even worse than a Category 3 hurricane, might befall the North Fork. Not to worry: the government’s got everything under control. They’ll take care of everything; all we have to do is trust them.

The less we know the better off they are.

The federal government is going back and classifying documents retroactively, then making it a crime to be in possession of classified documents.

The federal government is eavesdropping on phone calls without warrants. It’s collecting data on calls being made by Americans in America. It’s collecting data on who we send e-mails to, the websites we visit and what topics we Google. It’s even collecting data on Americans’ banking transactions. We’re not supposed to know any of that, though. Ask Dick Cheney. Boy, is he mad at The New York Times for disclosing the feds’ clandestine activities. The Times has gone and blown their cover and thwarted the government’s ability to fight The War on Terror. The president called the Times’ disclosure “disgraceful.”

What to do? Well, prosecute the press, of course. That’s what the chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, Rep. Peter King, is calling for. And that’s just what the federal government is planning, according to the U.S. attorney general.

This is a dangerous trend. Where does it lead? Look at a nation where the government attempts to have total control over the flow of information: China. In Tuesday’s Times, there was a report about the Chinese government covering up the murder of about 30 people by police, who sprayed a crowd of protestors with gunfire. The people were protesting the construction of a power plant, because building it means landfilling a body of water their village depends on for fishing. The government quashed the protest by gunning down the participants, and then covered up the shooting. On the same page of the paper was a report of China’s plan to require the media to gain government authorization before publishing any reports of “sudden events” — earthquakes, protests, accidents. Violators will be fined as much as $12,500 for each publication.

Can you imagine the government of the United States of America, in the name of homeland security, pronouncing a whole category of information “off limits” and requiring the media to get prior government authorization before publishing reports pertaining to the forbidden subject matter? Not too long ago, I couldn’t have imagined it — only in Richard Nixon’s fondest dreams. Today — well, sorry to say, it’s not beyond the realm of imagination any more.

In five days, we will mark the 230th anniversary of the birth of our nation. If you haven’t read the Declaration of Independence lately, reacquaint yourself with the words of that magnificent document. These will jump out: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Consent, unless it’s informed consent, is no consent at all.