Politics and public access make bedfellows so strange that one of them often gets booted off the mattress. On a national level, Oliver North's notes became confetti and Richard Nixon's tapes suffered 18 minutes of silence when someone expressed interest in them. The missing items in both cases had the potential of being politically embarrassing.
That's at least one reason Vernon Gray's idea that he and other County Council members are the best judges of what should be publicand what should be secret is ludicrous.
Gray, council chairman, said last week he will require the countyauditor to give the council "drafts" of audits before those audits are publicly available. Drafts, he contended, would avoid publication of what he considers personnel matters or memos not in the public interest. Both can be kept secret under the state's public records law.
Gray announced the draft concept -- legal even though it finesses the public's right to know -- after the county solicitor told him what he apparently didn't want to hear, that management audits are public documents.
Let's take a look at two recent audits that were the subjects of Howard County Sun articles.
Look first at the 1990 audit report of the Department of Animal Control -- the article Gray bared his canines over.
The report said that wardens wanted to be outfitted with handguns and tranquilizer guns, customized vans and two-way headsets. The auditor recommended all but the handguns. The county, in response, said it would pass on providing guns, hand and tranquilizer.
Gray's contention: The weaponry questions were a private squabble. The issue should not have been made public.
Nonsense, Mr. Chairman. Weapons in the hands of public employees is a public issue.
It's a matter that people who live, vote and pay taxes in this county -- taxes that not only pay public employees' salaries but buy those weapons -- should be aware of. It's up to the public, not politicians who may have vested interests in various departments, to decide just how big an issue this should be.
What weapons do workers believe they need? What weapons does the public feel comfortable giving them? What weapons does county government management think is best-suited for the job? What training should be mandated? Under what conditions should those weapons be used?
That's no secret personnel matter, and it's definitely in the public interest to hear about it. If protecting the public isn't a public issue, then it's not the public that's being protected.
Take that issue to another gun-toting department. Doesn't the public have every right to be in on discussions of what pistols the police are packing? Or maybe the cops are considering taking a lesson from the Ninja Turtles and want to use nunchaku instead. Will the public be excluded from that discussion, too?
The other audit we wrote about was of the Department of Recreation and Parks. The auditor noted that accounting procedures were a tad loose. The county's reply was that its workers could not be led into temptation.
Ahem. Not long after the audit, a supervisor in that departmentwas charged with a scheme to create and cash other people's payroll checks.
Fast-forward to the next Rec and Parks audit. Should mention of the accounting procedures -- let's say the loophole got plugged-- be deleted from the version of the audit the public sees? After all, in a year or so, the astute among us could put a name with the loophole even if the auditor doesn't. So what should be eliminated fromthe report? The employee's name? Job title? Or, if we're closing in on an election, the whole embarrassing issue?
The situation is open to tremendous potential for abuse. What's to stop a council at political odds with an administration or a department head from using theaudit as a weapon? Or hiding unfavorable actions of a political ally?
Under Gray's plan to circumvent the intent of the state law, thepublic will never know what, if anything, gets deleted. The council would get its "draft," and the public would get a sanitized, censored, neatly typed version. No heavy black marker would tar the report's "unsuitable" parts.
Federal and state governments use the black-marker approach -- at least readers know where and how much has been exorcised.
The public -- all 180,000-plus Howard County residents and whoever else takes a passing interest -- has a right to know what is going on in the hallowed halls. That goes for good deeds, misdeeds,mistakes and whatever else is under consideration that affects the public.
That's how voters get to make informed comments and decisions about their government and who's running it.