Editorial: Exercise your rights as stakeholders in government
If nothing else, this economic crisis has reminded us that what you don’t know can hurt you.
CEOs at the largest financial institutions in the world approved exotic investment vehicles they didn’t understand and then stood by helplessly as their storied empires collapsed.
Investors couldn’t figure out how Bernard Madoff made money grow but showered him with billions any way and then watched in horror when this modern day Wizard of Oz stepped out from behind the curtain.
People didn’t quite grasp the details of balloon payments and floating rates. But they saw the dream of home ownership spiraling out of reach and allowed lenders to talk them into mortgages they couldn’t afford.
Faith that someone with more knowledge and power than you has everything under control and will take care of you is a central tenet of religious life. But in the secular world, unquestioning faith can lead to a world of hurt.
Take government, for example.
We fork over a lot of money to fund federal, state and local programs and sometimes pay handsome salaries to the people who administer them.
Most of time, all goes well. For all its warts, our government is a world model and staffed by dedicated public servants striving to make this a better place to live. But it is a colossus, and there are myriad ways for things to go wrong. And when that happens, we have a right to know.
It was only because of the FOI Act that Weymouth last year learned former Police Chief James Thomas faced allegations that he groped several female employees at a Christmas party and once stopped a motorist when he himself appeared to be intoxicated.
He later resigned.
It was only because of an FOI request that Quincy mayor Thomas Koch provided expense records for his office last year. He later reimbursed the city for an $18,000 carpet he installed in his office and gave his $4,000 flat-screen TV to the city’s senior center.
But it is not a complex process best left to professionals. Anyone can use it.
This past year, for example, neighbors of the Scituate Rod & Gun Club used the Public Records Law to get access to reports on stray bullets hitting nearby homes. The effort helped them learn that one case they already knew of was not an isolated incident.
Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday, is an opportunity to increase public awareness as to what kinds of information we have a right to see, how to get it and what to do if someone tries to keep if from us.
As consumers we have no tolerance for barriers put between us and our ability to know if we’re getting our money’s worth. We’d walk out on a car dealer who wouldn’t let us look under the hood or a grocer who wouldn’t less us squeeze the produce.
We need to be just as intolerant when government denies us access to public information.
Those we elect and the staffs they oversee deserve a measure of trust.
But when doubts arise, it’s the sunshine laws that allow us to see what’s going on behind the curtain.
For more information on Sunshine Week and how you can access public records, visit www.patriotledger.com/opinions.