January 15, 2009

The dangers of private meetings on public matters

Politics, as most people think about it, is about the public: public service, public good.

There is a private component to politics, certainly - things like campaign strategy and other aspects related to competition.

When politics goes private, or "secret", as the Journal suggests in its editorial today, there's always the potential for magnifying the consequences of a trainwreck. When times are good, sure, no one notices the secrecy. Our County Legislature has held private party caucuses for a long long while. When times are bad, as they suddenly became with a botched vote for the legislature's Vice Chair, that secrecy suddenly breeds doubts, conspiracy theories, and a lot of general unhappiness.

And frankly, it should. It's hard to imagine why a publicly elected body should hold the deliberations where decisions are actually made in private. I've been disgusted by this practice at the state level with both the Assembly and the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats. I understand that party caucuses have been the practice at the county level here for a long long time as well.

I fully understand why private meetings are more comfortable. It's not fun to argue in public, with a media and a public that seem to amplify disagreement and misunderstanding to drama. Any public statement is subject to use and abuse by partisans of every kind.

Secrecy may seem to avoid that drama - but it's a false security, one that ensures that eventually more people will attribute sinister motives to ordinary activity. (I certainly don't hesitate to attribute sinister motives to our state legislators, who seem to go out of their way to encourage it.)

I don't think there was actually anything sinister going on here. It seems pretty clear to me that the Democratic legislators botched what was supposed to be a simple election, and I suspect that they were all surprised at the result. Unfortunately, the secret caucuses before and during that meeting have cast a pall over all future discussions, damaging the credibility of everyone involved.

As I wrote about state issues recently, "Stop hiding in caucus!" Transparency, even radical transparency is necessary when public trust of any kind is involved.

I'm not certain that I'd want to ban party caucuses outright, but I am certain that they should be reserved for discussing electoral competition or for cases where there has been a complete breakdown of the public process, and people simply won't talk with each other.

We need to get used to dealing with public matters in public if we seriously want to restore trust in government. I know that's hard medicine for a lot of people, even a lot of good people, to swallow, but it's necessary.

Update: This won't make things any better. Chairs complaining of political pressure doesn't make them seem any stronger or the process seem any more appealing - it just makes it clear that the train has left the tracks.

Later update: And more from the Journal on caucuses - how, why, etc. Legislators from both parties seem to support their continued routine use, which I can only call unfortunate.

Posted by simon at January 15, 2009 9:22 PM in ,
Note on photos