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  • Last modified 18 days ago (June 27, 2024)

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Is democracy
in a holding pattern?

We keep hearing that we live in an information age, but it seems harder and harder to actually hear information we seek. It’s as if everyone is leaving “evil” out of the expression “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” No one listens, notices, or tells anything, evil or otherwise.

Flying back from an award ceremony Saturday, I was scheduled to change planes in Phoenix. I rushed down seemingly endless corridors that felt as if they stretched halfway to Kansas. Thanks to an assortment of moving walkways that, unlike many of their neighbors, actually moved, I was able to reach my gate just in time.

Boarding was about to begin, but it didn’t. The passengers were there. The plane was, too. What was missing were the pilots. For some reason, which the airline wouldn’t divulge even to its employees, no one was available to fly the plane on a day that featured mostly cloudless skies nationwide.

After a couple of painfully long hours of waiting on painfully unpadded airport benches, a glimmer of hope darted across the faces of those in my newfound community of airport warriors wearily waiting to go to Wichita.

A crew finally showed up — to a round of applause, no less. But so, too, did passengers bound for another destination. Like a band of desperadoes — although apparently with permission — they hijacked our aerial stagecoach and flew it to somewhere in the badlands of Texas.

An hour or so later, another plane destined for Kansas appeared. Again, we were told it would be just a matter of moments before we would begin boarding. And once again, as the time-till-boarding clock ticked down to zero, no crew could be found.

After hour upon hour of false starts, a crew finally did show up. I and my increasingly familiar travel mates finally arrived in Wichita a little after 3 a.m. We then waited half an hour for baggage, which we had been forced to check. I finally made it home by 4:30 a.m. — more than four hours later than planned.

Despite repeated questioning by me, my fellow passengers, and even the airline’s gate agent, no one would say why. In fact, the gate agent became so miffed at her employer that another agent was called to replace her.

If the airline had offered a reason and it was reasonable, we stranded passengers might have been understanding and forgiving. But that opportunity never was given. We were kept in the dark, leaving all of us to believe darkly sinister motives or lapses so flimsy the airline would rather perturb its paying passengers than admit its wrongdoing.

The gate attendant, who’s 60 and proud of her grandkids, blamed it on generational values. Younger people, she contended, just don’t understand how to serve people by being forthright and honest. If so, we suspect younger people have taken over not just in airline scheduling but in virtually everything that has anything to do with government.

One of our reporters, for example, asked a police official a rather simple question earlier today and was told the answer was readily available — provided she filled out an odiously time-consuming form requesting a report under the Kansas Open Records Act. Why the delay? If someone knows the answer, say what it is. Don’t force people to complete paperwork that will merely delay getting the facts.

It’s not that people need a paper trail of all requests. It’s that they know most people — especially journalists — are working against some sort of deadline and don’t want to wait several days for a request to go through. They’ll just give up and go away.

Kansas law says openness is supposed to be the default position for government. All documents are to be open and public, and all meetings are to be open and public, unless a very specific set of conditions allows — but doesn’t require — that public access be denied.

The law even says it is to be interpreted liberally, putting the onus on government to prove secrecy is needed. Otherwise, everything should be done in the open and be available for anyone in the public to learn about.

Just like airlines, officials get away with ignoring the rules simply because people don’t challenge them. A lot of people talk nowadays about a need to “take back” government. Step One is learning to challenge secrecy and insist that all government dealings be done in the open.

Airlines can get away with ticking off customers. We’ll just choose a different airline next time we travel. That was, by the way, a very frequently heard refrain in the gate area where I was stranded Saturday night.

Alas, we can’t do that with bureaucrats. They stay in office even if the elected officials who are supposed to be their bosses are ousted. Best thing we can do is make sure the bosses know we aren’t pleased when they won’t share information.

Do it enough, and perhaps we’ll all reach the democratic destination we desire safely and on time. In the end, when democracy is concerned, each of us is our own pilot.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 27, 2024

 

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