November 16, 2016 – The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
by Miranda Spivack,
For more than three decades, Nick Maravell and his family farmed on a 20-acre plot in suburban Maryland, tucked between the Potomac River and megamansions in Potomac, a tony suburb that is home to powerful lobbyists, government contractors and other wealthy families.
Nick’s Organic Farm, a relaxed place where customers would stop by to pick up some vegetables or simply drop in for a chat, was a tenant on land owned by the county public school system. But one day in 2011, Maravell got some bad news. Montgomery County’s top elected official and his aides had been negotiating in secret to get the school board to kick out Maravell’s farm and rent the site to a private soccer club.
“It caught everybody by surprise,” said Curt Uhre, a neighbor.
Residents who cherished the farm quickly rallied to Maravell’s side. Worried about traffic and the potential loss of open space, they began researching the county’s proposal to convert the farm to soccer fields.
During the legal fight, they also began learning about Maryland’s open records law. Used frequently by journalists and business interests, the state’s public records law allowed them to seek government documents — memos, officials’ calendars and other items — that might offer clues to how the deal was done or hints about who had been speaking with whom, when the plans were hatched and why.
But when residents asked for those documents, they hit a wall: Montgomery County government officials said they could not find many emails, letters and calendars related to their search.
This seemed preposterous, so the residents took the only route available to them — they went to court. A skeptical county judge urged the government to look anew for missing documents. Officials soon managed to find most of what the residents had sought.
The details weren’t pretty.
Documents showed that County Executive Isiah Leggett, a Democrat less than a year from his next election, had been pushing behind closed doors for the private soccer club to take over the site and attempting to pressure a reluctant school board, even though in theory he had no power over school system decisions.
The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board also found that the school board had violated the state’s open meetings law by discussing the lease deal in closed session.
Patrick Lacefield, Leggett’s spokesman, sees the dispute differently. “The issue was not transparency,” he wrote in an email. “That was a ruse to advance the substance of those opposed to the project — that they opposed using public land located near their exclusive neighborhood so that kids, including disadvantaged kids, could have a place to play soccer.”
The battle over the fate of the farm spanned two years and cost the residents at least $100,000 in legal fees, Uhre said. Was the county’s failure to provide key information to the public due to lack of knowledge of the state’s open meetings law? Sloppy recordkeeping? Deliberate obfuscation? It was impossible to tell.
This expensive, drawn-out dispute was over a single plot of land and some soccer fields. But the story of Nick’s Organic Farm is far from unique. The same thing is happening across the United States.
While much media attention is focused on federal government secrecy, secretive practices of state and local governments often get less scrutiny but frequently have a more immediate impact on communities.
Details of emergency management plans that would inform residents how their government will operate in a hurricane, earthquake or other catastrophic event can be hidden in the name of national security. Information about an unplanned shutdown at the nuclear plant up the road can be delayed or kept secret. Should residents be able to learn who has guns in their neighborhood, information that most states have in recent years decided to make off-limits to the public? Should police videos be kept out of the public’s hands in the name of privacy?
There are no definitive national studies of the scope of state and local secrecy, but the studies, surveys and anecdotal evidence that do exist strongly suggest state and local government secrecy has increased in the past 10 years. While there are many reasons for this, it has coincided with a decline in local news coverage, technological advances that governments haven’t been able to afford and an increase in outsourcing of government functions to private entities.
Whatever the causes, lack of transparency by state and local governments can discourage civic discourse and grass-roots engagement with government, as a frustrated public often simply gives up after struggling but failing to find out what is going on close to home.
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of New York’s publicly funded Committee on Open Government, one of few such agencies in the country, says U.S. jurisdictions have fallen behind countries such as Estonia, Mexico and Peru in sharing records and keeping public meetings public.
“You need a government champion who works independently to make the laws work,” he said. But few governments in the U.S. have them. In many states, the only way to pry loose information is to file a lawsuit.
The rise in government secrecy carries a big cost. When governments have to defend lawsuits or other proceedings challenging their practices, the public bears the expense. When governments fail to post documents on a website and instead respond to repeated queries from the public by photocopying the same material again and again, there is waste. Perhaps most significantly, lack of transparency poses a major risk to good government: When the public is shut out and information is hard to get, governments can mask poor practices, corruption, waste, fraud and abuse.
State and local secrecy takes many forms. Some communities fail to provide budget information that is clear and easy to understand, or they list contracts but don’t explain why they were awarded. Others try to charge excessive fees for information – sometimes millions of dollars. as the Massachusetts State Police did to a lawyer seeking information about drunken driving tests – hire outside companies to supply data at extraordinary prices or evade open meetings laws by creating small subcommittees that they claim are exempt from the statutes.
Many state and local governments cite national security to withhold information. This means that something relatively simple,such as finding out who is getting a contract to clean the offices at a local nuclear power plant, can become a ridiculously expensive legal battle.