Every reasonable person would agree that transparent and accountable government is a good idea. When elected officials operate in secrecy, when the activities of government are hidden, the experiment that is self-government loses vigor. Unwatched, the legitimacy of democratic rule atrophies.
Journalists and journalistic enterprises play an active, if not essential role in ensuring that government remains transparent and accountable to the people. But when journalistic activities aimed at shedding light on the activities of public officials are conducted injudiciously and out of partisan motivations, those responsible become complicit enablers of unaccountable government.
The Portland Press Herald has published an editorial on the subject of transparency: “Our View: State falls short on spending transparency“. The diatribe, one of many the editors have levied against the governor, is preposterous.
As if the editors were reading from the same script as Democratic leaders in Augusta, the editorial attempts to blame LePage for the actions of a rogue Centers for Disease Control bureaucrat who is alleged, among other things, to have shredded public documents. “The CDC records controversy is just another example of the LePage administration’s resistance to transparency,” the editors opine.
The Press Herald’s leap of logic in trying to pin the actions of a longtime CDC bureaucrat on the LePage administration is indefensible. Moreover, the editors studiously ignore both LePage’s transparency initiatives and the ongoing efforts of Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland) and House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) to thwart routine journalistic inquiry into their activities.
According to available state payroll records, the employee in question, Christine M. Zukas, has been working for the state since at least 1997 and served throughout both the King and Baldacci administrations – hardly a hand-picked LePage appointee. Her connection to LePage is merely being one of thousands of state employees. By that standard, LePage is also to blame for the conduct of disgraced former Maine Turnpike Authority Director Paul Violette and former Maine State Housing Authority Director Dale McCormick.
On the areas where LePage has made substantive contributions to government transparency, the editors remain curiously silent. They do not, for example, mention that LePage is responsible for establishing a first-of-its-kind state-managed website that provides citizens and journalists alike with an in-depth look at state spending and payroll records. The creation of OpenCheckBook.Maine.Gov is one of the top accomplishments of the LePage administration, and there is a good chance Press Herald reporters have used the tool in their reporting. But for some mysterious reason, the paper’s editors ignore the site in an editorial regarding the transparency of state spending.
The Press Herald’s attack also builds off of criticism from the Lewiston Sun Journal over LePage’s refusal to release early drafts of the infamous Alexander Group report ahead of schedule. The LePage administration stated at the outset that the report would be made public on the week of Jan. 6, which it was, right on schedule. Yet this did not stop the Sun Journal from making loud noises about transparency, as if the administration was not operating well within the bounds of the Freedom of Access Act (FOAA). In truth, the reporter complaining the loudest was really just mad that he couldn’t get the report first and beat his competitors to the punch.
If the Press Herald and Sun Journal are so committed to transparency, then why haven’t they submitted a single FOAA request to Democratic legislative leaders? Moreover, why are they not at all concerned about the fate of the FOAA requests that have been submitted to President Alfond and Speaker Eves? (See: This is what transparency looks like under the Eves-Alfonf regime…)
The Maine Wire submitted a public records request to the Democratic leaders last May. After an entire summer spent stonewalling, Democratic staffers asked for payment of nearly $1,500 before the records could be obtained and made public. They claim that it took nearly 100 hours for staff to compile a couple of emails about one bill. The entire affair reeks of an attempt by public officials and their staff to thwart routine journalistic inquiry and stymie the public’s access to public records.
Our attempt to bring transparency to the activities of the most powerful lawmakers in Augusta has been thoroughly and publicly chronicled, but LePage’s enemies in the main stream media remain silent. Perhaps their indignation is not nonpartisan.
The editors conclude: “[U]nless residents of Maine make a concerted push for openness, state government will willingly continue to keep us in the dark.”
The Press Herald — and other nominally objective journalistic enterprises — ought to apply their high standards of transparency more judiciously and in a nonpartisan manner. Otherwise, they will continue to contribute to and sustain the very lack of transparency they ostensibly detest.