Log Cabin Chronicles

Too Much Secrecy


What's wrong with us? Why do we put up with the increasing secrecy at all levels of government?

Is it because we're sheep or do we seriously believe that "someone out there" is looking after our best interests?

Forget that. All too often politcians at all levels of government look after their own interests and call it the public good.

Or perhaps it often just appears that way.

Local mayors and council members often work long hours for little compensation and, sometimes, even less appreciation.

Given this, it's not hard for them to develop a vested interest in stances taken, plans made, projects created, and to believe this is the will of the people and part of a public mandate to rule.

But perceptions are very powerful.

Regardless of how decent and upright and committed the elected official, when they are perceived as pursuing private agendas behind closed doors it lessens the public's confidence.

In a democracy, the social contract between the people and their elected representatives is based on trust. While acting in our behalf, we expect them to do the right thing in full public view.

Anything less is a breach of trust, a breach of the social contract.

I've heard excuses for secret sessions ranging from the absurdist "the public doesn't have any right to know what I think" through "it's the only way to that councillors will say what they truly feel" to "that's just the way things are."

I don't buy any of it. The public's business ought to conducted in a fish bowl. That's called transparency - one of today's buzz words usually honored in the breach.

A case in point about secrecy: The meeting scheduled June 14 by the town council of Ogden, Quebec, to discuss how to define the abandoned CP railbed that a non-profit group, using private funds, wants to convert into a path easily traveled by people on bicycles.

It will be held behind closed doors. Council calls it a "work session." That way, no one is accountable to the public for what is said.

No matter what you call it , it's a secret session. The public isn't welcome.

The mayor and the councillors will be there. The pro-trail group Sentier Massawippi will be represented. The anti-trail group Tomifobia Valley Homeowners Association will be represented. In the past, some members of both groups have vilified their opponents.

By agreeing to meet with council in secret session, neither group is acting in the best interest of the public. Or course, each group may feel that yes, indeed, this private approach to public matters is for the good of all.

Towns on both sides of Ogden have allowed Sentier Massawippi to improve the railbed so cyclists can use it without puncturing their tires on the sharp rock ballast.

Indeed, Stanstead has invested public funds acquiring and improving an old spur line off the main railbed. The State of Vermont, just across the border, fixed up their 3.8 miles just recently.

However, to date Ogden's six-mile section remains untouched because of council opposition.

The pro-bike trail group owns the land under Mayor Niels Jensen's woodworking shop, which is next to the old railbed. He has not yet been able to secure the deed for the land from Sentier Massawippi. In the past he has also been closely aligned with the anti-trail Homeowners group. He is also seen as committed to his community, working long hours on town matters week in and week out.

However, Mayor Jensen is slated to chair the closed-door meeting. He shouldn't, nor should Councillor Michael Sudlow, the sole member of council who is publically identified as "pro-bike trail." Someone considered more neutral on the issue should chair the meeting.

Despite all the good intentions in the world and protestations of good faith and impartiality, it still sugars off to perceptions.

Just another good example why secret sessions are such a bad idea.

For more on the bike path | Vermont opens trail

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Copyright © 1999 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/6.99