Often you hear people talk about how government should be run like a business, and it is a nice metaphor for reminding people that cost controls are important, and the books should be balanced, but the phrase masks a very important reality: Government is not a business.
In our talks with people around town about our belief in an open, transparent government, we are sometimes confronted with the idea that government should be run like a business.
Specifically, the City of Batavia should have only one spokes person, and that person is City Manager Jason Molino.
When we spoke to the City Council on this subject a couple of weeks ago, that was exactly the argument Councilman Bill Cox used in dismissing our request for more open access to the local government.
Earlier this week, when we did a post on this topic, John Roach left the following comment:
Jason is right not letting city employees speak with you or the other news media. He is dead right on that. There can be only one spokesman for an organization and all public agencies have that policy. In fact, most private companies have the same policy: one spokesman.
Both Philip Anselmo and I responded about how neither of us, in all of our journalistic experience, have ever dealt with a city government that prohibited employees from talking to the media.
It's just not normal.
But here's where the argument that government is like a business really breaks down:
A government can do things a business can't. A government can impose taxes; a government takes those taxes and decides how to spend those dollars in ways that can have profound impacts on citizens' lives; a government employs people who carry guns and can lock up citizens for reasons both great and small; a government can tell you where and how to hang a sign, what color to paint your house, what repairs must be made to your front porch, what new structures you can erect and where you can do it and what materials can be used; a government is responsible for running facilities -- such as parks -- for the public benefit.
In other words, a government has great power over, awesome responsibility for, and substantial accountability to every person within its jurisdiction.
Businesses, on the other hand, rely on competitive advantages and trade secrets to maintain profitability and ensure it can maintain and grow jobs for the people of a community. Without successful businesses, there would be no taxes to collect. That's why the freedom of information laws always enjoin government agencies to protect trade secrets when exposed during the transaction of business between a company and a government agency.
Can businesses be abusive? Sure, but there are also laws that regulate businesses (and though often changing or unevenly enforced for good or ill, they do exist), anti-trust laws to prevent any one business from becoming too powerful, and the free market to check and diminish a business's power.
So there really is no comparison between a government's obligation be open and transparent and a private (or even publicly held) company's right to keep some secrets.
In a well run government, free of malfeasance and derelictions, there should be no reason for any muzzles on any staff member, from the janitor on up to every department head.
We've also heard the argument -- "well, if you want to know something, just FOIL it."
FOIL stands for Freedom of Information Law (at the Federal level it's known as the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA). Go read the opening section of FOIL. It's a beautiful thing. It makes our case for us.
The fact is, if a government agency was operating under the principles of FOIL, living within the spirit of the legislation instead insisting on following the letter of the law, there would never, ever be any reason for a private citizen or media representative to EVER file a formal FOIL request.
A truly open government would just hand over documents with a simple verbal request.
Open governments have nothing to hide and no secrets to keep except those specifically and explicitly enjoined to it by state or federal law.
We shouldn't even need legislation such as FOIL to find out what our government is up to, but the Legislature found it necessary to stop abuses by overzealous government administrators.
But there are three primary problems with FOIL.
- A government agency has five days to respond to a FOIL request, and agencies that wish to delay release of information will take full advantage of this provision;
- FOIL requests must be written in such a way as to be very specific about the records reqeuested -- write the request too broad, and a government agency can use the lack of specificity as an excuse not to include some documents; write it too narrowly and you might miss the most important documents;
- FOIL doesn't cover human intelligence -- not everything you might want to find out about how your government is working is contained within a specific document. Some of it is only contained in the minds of the people who know what is going on. There is simply no substitute for talking with a person and asking questions.
With these liabilities, it is improper for a government agency to hide behind FOIL as a means of controlling the flow of information.
We don't think we're asking for much: We're just asking that the City of Batavia be run in an open, transparent manner so that taxpayers are well served. Until that happens, how can we trust that power isn't being abused and tax dollars are being well spent?