Secrecy Builds Mistrust

By Art Cullen

A couple of recent polls indicated that 80% of the public does not trust government. It probably started when President Ike, of all people, lied to us about Gary Powers flying a spy plane over the former Soviet Union. The dishonesty, cynicism and obfuscation have only grown worse through the years.

It starts at the closest levels of government.

The city council makes a multi-million-dollar decision without so much as a comment. The vote is unanimous. How did this come to be? By telephone, accident or serendipity?

The school superintendent wants to know if any member of the public has talked with school staff about potential budget cuts and how it may affect their program. If so, that staffer is in hot water.

The county supervisors issue a vague agenda and stick a red-hot item under “other business” so the public doesn’t know to show up at the meeting.

The state legislature decides what the school aid formula will be among majority party leaders, and then endorse the plan in the majority caucus room. The committee process is mere window dressing to affirm what already has been decided among the few.

If a dirty rotten scoundrel writes a letter offering a seamy deal to a government official in Iowa, that letter is held secret under the law if the dirty rotten scoundrel requests it so.

When health care reform is debated in Congress, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is bribed for a vote with a $100 million Medicaid deal for his home state. Eventually the deal becomes public. What of the deals we will never know about? In the caucus room across the aisle, the minority decides it will oppose any fashion of health reform so the president will be seen as a failure. Both sides made the committee process a bad joke.

That’s why people don’t trust government.

It’s because elected officials become co-opted and proprietary. They think that the unit of government they serve is theirs to control. The people could not understand their arguments if they were done in public, the reasoning goes.

It’s because deals are cut in the back room every day outside the committee process.

It’s because many units of government and quasi-governmental agencies exist to serve the management and boards, not the people.

It’s because bureaucrats are afraid of what the public might find out. When the bureaucrat or politician is found out, they lie about it. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “I am not a crook.” “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.”

That’s why people don’t trust government. It’s all about secrecy, and hiding the public’s business from the public. It is getting worse, not better, at every level.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, where this appeared. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010

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