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  • Last modified 16 days ago (May 3, 2019)

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When 'I've Got a Secret' becomes too real

Forget a souped up DeLorean and flux capacitor. You need only the comfort of your couch to take a trip back through time.

Streaming services that rapidly are replacing cable, satellite, and theaters provide ample opportunity to binge on classics like “What’s My Line,” “To Tell the Truth,” and “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Men in suits and ties (often tuxedos) and women in evening gowns politely referring to each other as “Mr.” and “Miss” give nostalgic viewers a welcome respite of civility and respect that have become nigh-on extinct in the rough and Tumblr world of social media and 24-hour news shoutathons.

Those flickering, metaphorically black-and-white days, when we as a nation were just beginning to think about reaching to the stars, probably weren’t as wonderful as our memories would have us believe.

But it’s interesting that, in those days, people were engaged with the serious business of current events, and the entertainment industry offered the occasional diversion of letting us guess the sometimes flamboyant, always innocent secrets of fellow citizens.

Nowadays, government seems intent on keeping anything and everything secret while politicians entertain us with flamboyance that does anything but engage us in the serious business of current affairs.

We all know what’s been happening nationally, but we sometimes miss the anti-openness of units of government closer to home.

When we asked last week for the local post office to show us evidence of dog problems backing up threats to cancel door-to-door mail delivery, we were diverted first to a regional manager then to a national manager, from whom we would have to formally request the information under the federal Freedom of Information Act — which we have done, though it may take weeks if not months to resolve.

Local police, on the other hand, were more than willing to take time out of their busy days to compile whatever statistics they had on problems with dogs in the community.

Bureaucrat or public servant? You tell us which label fits which group.

Then there’s the City of Florence, which yearns with some justification for the civility of the ’50s but does so by ham-handedly trying to curtail public comments from the very citizens who pay for everything it does.

Truth is, the dispute over how and whether citizens should be allowed to speak at city council meetings in Florence isn’t a Florence problem. It’s a problem for the whole state.

Forty years ago, when Kansas enacted its Open Meetings Act, the state was a leader in bringing government out of the shadows, giving citizens the facts, and letting them have input they need to make democracy work.

Forty years of not keeping up with the times have made that law a sad joke in comparison to other states’ more modern laws.

Rather than requiring advance registration, even before agendas are available, to speak at a public meeting, most states mandate that at least a portion of every public meeting include time for every citizen who wants to speak to speak about whatever that citizen wants to speak about — a pretty fundamental right, espoused in the Bill of Rights guarantee that citizens can peacefully assemble to petition government for redress of grievances.

Florence is right. State law in Kansas does not require open public comment. But it should. And Florence could be a leader in engaging rather than turning off the public by going above and beyond the woefully minimal requirements of state law.

This isn’t the only area in which Kansas law seriously lags.

In most states, no public body can vote on anything unless the issue is on its public agenda at least two working days in advance, so people know to show up if they want to be heard.

In most states, if a governmental body — even a minor subcommittee only vaguely supported by tax money — wants to meet in secret, it must maintain a verbatim transcript of everything said behind closed doors.

If anyone thinks officials overstepped the very narrowly limited justifications for legally shutting the public out of the discussion, the record goes to a judge. If one word in the secret session wasn’t covered by whatever exemption was claimed, the entire transcript is immediately and publicly released.

In Marion County, getting officials to attend training in key provisions of the Open Meetings Act is like inviting 5-year-olds to eat a plate of lima beans and Brussels sprouts. Some will. Most won’t.

In other states, a condition of taking office — even for the tiniest subcommittee that barely gets tax dollars — is completion of mandatory training on that state’s open meetings laws. Fail to complete the training and the official loses his or her seat at the table.

When government stifles voices of concern, hides behind closed doors, and forces citizens to make a federal case out of trying to get basic information to evaluate whether government is doing a good job, it may be trying to bring back the civility of ’50s game shows.

But it actually has the reverse effect, just as social media have increasingly become anti-social media.

Deny the public information and the ability to be heard and what results is not civility but anger and argument, all without full background or the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue.

What we get is shouting — sometimes half-baked, almost always unpleasant, and without doubt completely counterproductive to American democracy.

It’s time to change Kansas law and stop hiding behind minimum requirements of what government is legally empowered to do and instead start doing, as Marion police demonstrated this week, what government is morally obliged to do to keep the public informed and engaged.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 3, 2019

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