Saturday, May 16, 2009

The best of disinfectants


“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
– Justice Louis Brandeis

In 2008 a widespread and diffused longing for cultural and political change coalesced. Voters coast-to-coast willingly took leaps of faith. But what happened on election day, with its dramatic mandate for change, was hardly the fickle result of a tidal wave. It came from what had been a long steady rain.

With high-profile executives under fire in many quarters, it was a bad year for bad leaders. In both the private and public sectors incompetent leadership was bitterly denounced.

Now, with the 100th day signposts in the rear-view mirror the nation is watching President Barack Obama, to see what he really meant when he promised "change." Richmonders have their eyes on Mayor Dwight Jones, to see how much he will be different than his self-absorbed predecessor.

Obama and Jones have both followed executives who disappointed many of the people who voted for them. They both have followed men who liked to keep the citizenry in the dark, when they used tactics they knew would not set well with John Q. Public.

So, on torture and other prisoner-abuse matters, Obama needs to stand aside and let the truth come out. Whether people go to jail for authorizing torture, or actually doling out the cruel and unusual punishment, is a separate issue. That will come later.

But whatever the truth is about what crimes were committed by Americans and their agents in the shadows, in the name of prosecuting the so-called War on Terror, it must be aired out for the whole world to see.

Closer to home, Dwight Jones has the power to make a savvy move that would put him in a good light. In his fifth month in office he could act boldly to show everybody in town, including current and future employees of The City of Richmond, just how willing he is to break with yesterday’s cloistered way of doing the people’s business.

Jones could say, “Let there be sunlight.”

Or, Jones could blow off the opportunity, to stick with the traditional way of running governments that has wanted as little kibitzing from citizens as possible. Whatever Jones does, “sunlight” is a political issue that is only going to get bigger.

I just spent a frustrating week trying to get some very basic information about who owns what, to do with theaters and such that the City of Richmond once owned/owns -- it' still not clear to me -- out of official spokespersons. At this writing, I can't say there's skullduggery afoot with all that. But I can say that it makes red flags pop up when I sense people are hiding something, or stalling me.

When I see that the City of Richmond passed a law in 2008 to keep me from being able to follow the money, when the Carpenter Theatre opens in September, it makes me wonder why City Council went to so much trouble to keep me in the dark.

Today’s technology makes it possible for City Hall to open itself up to scrutiny from any citizen with access to the Internet. If Richmond wants to do it, this city could allow the taxpayers to track their money through the machinery of government to where it gets spent. And, with a mouse click they could see exactly what properties the citizens of Richmond own, how and when they were acquired, fair estimates of their value and what liens and leases exist.

Oh yeah, let's also see how those city-owned properties are being used.

As fresh as that concept might seem to some readers, it’s been bubbling in the blogosphere for some time. One noteworthy and innovative step has already been taken toward more citizen oversight of routine government business. A couple of years ago, Waldo Jaquith, one of Virginia’s best known political bloggers, launched a website to track bills through the General Assembly. It’s called Richmond Sunlight.

Yes, the same Internet that offers unlimited opportunities to waste time, could also be the key to making democracy function properly in the 21st century through swift and greater accountability. Besides, since the government already watches us all the time, why shouldn’t we be able to watch it?

In Richmond no one has written more eloquently about the beauty of sunlight/transparency into matters involving the use of public funds than freelance writer Don Harrison, who publishes Save Richmond. Although he's been taking some ribbing this week, SaveRichmond won the Laurence E. Richardson Freedom of Information Award in 2005 (it was Harrison and two partners then) for its investigative journalism, to do with what is now known as Richmond CenterStage.

It won’t be long before more political candidates catch on to this movement toward openness. Advocating more sunlight into government’s handling of money is going to get politicians elected, whether they are liberals or conservatives.

Just how this citizen oversight of the flow of money would be accomplished, technically, is something best left to the IT experts. But if Mayor Jones wants there to be a portal through which we can view how his administration handles money, and weigh that performance, he can make it happen. If he really wants to be a change agent he will make that happen.

Part of the answer to the mind-boggling trouble with money this nation is facing, in the private and public sectors, is more sunlight into how that money moves.

– 30 –

– Words and art by F.T. Rea

1 comment:

Don said...

These folks have wasted $11 million in public money already and they are uncomfortable answering questions about what they building with $25 million more. We are just supposed to take their word for it, even as they shield taxpayers from getting a good hard look at what we are funding.

Meanwhile, their private fundraising is way, way down... they refuse to name an artistic director until AFTER the place supposedly will open... and there has never been one single independent study on whether or not any of it makes any sense.


Take a good hard look, Shockoe baseball debaters - this is what "Build it and they will come" looks like in River City. Can't you feel the excitement?