It should be no big secret

Government pries into taxpayers' lives while hiding important info

June 9, 2013 

If you're angry at government right now, you have every right to be. We are, too.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Americans are supposed to have privacy and the dealings of government are supposed to be public. In practice, the situation is too often reversed.

The National Security Agency, we learned this past week, has collected the telephone records of tens of millions of cell phone customers under the guise of looking for terrorists. Under a separate program, government is accessing the Internet servers, supposedly on foreigners.

We're still learning about the extent of these domestic surveillance programs, but what we know so far is alarming. The government has the responsibility and the right to collect intelligence that will prevent another Sept. 11 or another Boston bombing incident. But it also needs to explain and justify the scope of the programs it employs.

On the other side of the spectrum is government's proclivity toward secrecy rather transparency.

That is a chronic problem that extends from the highest levels in Washington, D.C., right on down to state government and then on to local boards and councils.

We hammer on this issue frequently. It's a crusade for The Bee and other newspapers that believe that openness is not only the law, but also the best recipe for credibility and trust in government.

In recent weeks, we've seen two big issues where the city of Modesto fell far short of being transparent:

• As reported last Sunday by J.N. Sbranti, the process of selecting a site for the new Stanislaus County courthouse has been done largely in secret, without a single public gathering. Residents knew about the potential sites because The Bee reported on them, but they were never given a formal chance to comment.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts set the tone for this secretive deliberation, and city leaders bought right into it — without ever holding session to explain why they were so aggressive in pitching the parcel, partially owned by the city, between Ninth and 10th and G and H streets.

The reason: City officials see the courthouse as a fine way to enhance 10th Street as a major corridor from Modesto Centre Plaza, along the side of the Gallo Center for the Arts and all the way into the 90-acre Gateway Parcel of Tuolumne River Regional Park. As The Bee reported in 2006, the city's goal has been to create an eye- catching stretch of commercial, residential and retail development between the two bookends — the park and Tenth Street Place.

While that vision for Tenth Street might be clear in city officials' minds, many Modestans consider I Street as the main downtown corridor, both because it is wider and because it also boasts the front of the Gallo Center, the existing courthouse, the library, the museum and the side of the McHenry Mansion. That's why many preferred the block currently occupied by — but no longer owned by — this newspaper. (The Bee and McClatchy Newspapers have no financial stake in the outcome.)

The City Council held two closed-door sessions to talk about the courthouse site — on Sept. 25, 2012, and then on May 28, 2013 — but never a public session.

That brings us to the current situation, where the city is negotiating with the state over a total price it is willing to pay for the block. Then the city, in turn, will negotiate with owners of the other six parcels and try to make a deal that allows the city to break even. The city also apparently will incur the costs of moving utilities.

And what if the city cannot make the numbers work out to a wash? Then there will have to be a serious — and public — discussion of whether it is willing to spend the additional money to get the courthouse at that location. The money presumably would come from the city general fund.

"At the end of the day there will be a public meeting" on the subject, City Manager Greg Nyhoff assured us.

And therein lies the problem: The public has been cut out of this discussion until the end.

• Citizens aren't the only ones who haven't gotten the full script of the community survey — a k a poll — done by an outside firm on several issues, but most notably on whether there would be support for a sales tax measure to provide more money for public safety. At Tuesday's council meeting, during an oral presentation of the preliminary poll results, even some of the council members were frustrated that they could not know the wording of the questions. Nyhoff said it was proprietary information. We think that's a weak argument.

In spite of his campaign pledge for transparency, Mayor Garrad Marsh has not provided any kind of specifics on his sales tax idea. So with only weeks until the absolute final deadline to get a ballot measure prepared, the public knows nothing.

In some cases, we see government officials hiding things because of corruption or because they are embarrassed by mistakes. Far more often, the public is excluded as an oversight and-or because the officials don't really value the public's right to know what is being done with their money and in their name.

Secrecy seems to come naturally to politicians and decision makers. There's no cure for this chronic disease, but it can be treated when the people — individuals, organizations and the press — are vigilant in watching and reminding them that the public's business must be done in full view.

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