11/17/10: Shut out and shut down

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

TRANSPARENCY is one of the top buzzwords as we approach the end of this first decade of the 21st century.

Published in the Federal Register is a memo from President Barack Obama declaring that government should be transparent, participatory and collaborative. “Transparency,” the president wrote, “promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.” An entire website — www.whitehouse.gov/open — has been created to track this initiative.

What we have witnessed over the past few weeks in Hampton Roads is anything but transparency.

Within days of the announcement of the current city manager’s retirement, Norfolk had hired a new city manager. Within days of the election of a new mayor, Portsmouth had appointed a new council member. Months of haggling has yet to result in this newspaper obtaining documents from the Norfolk School Board related to testing problems.

Is it any wonder, then, that more people stayed at home in the most recent elections than voted?

Last week, the Commission on Civics Education hosted a summit in Richmond for civics educators from across the state. Included in the program was a presentation about a recent survey of civic health in Virginia.

Much of the report focused on young people, ages 18 to 29. Members of that group not only voted less than any other age group but also volunteered less, attended fewer public meetings, were less likely to fix something in their neighborhood and donated less. The report opines that “perhaps they are more disillusioned with the way government works.”

One does not have to be young to be disillusioned.

Things such as council meetings in the middle of the afternoon and the lack of televised work sessions — both activities that Norfolk engages in — have a way of reinforcing the premise that government does not work for us. I guess we should be grateful: Norfolk has recently decided to televise the afternoon formal meetings. Unlike Virginia Beach, though, which streams its council sessions live, Norfolk’s are recorded, edited and aired the next day.

Norfolk has a court reporter at each of its work sessions and formal council meetings, yet no transcripts of the meetings are available for citizens to review. Instead, we are provided perfunctory minutes of the formal meetings and nothing from the work sessions. Not even audio from the work sessions is available.

We can discern from the city of Norfolk’s website the members of various boards and commissions, but we have no idea when they were appointed or when those appointments expire, because many of those appointments took place in the work sessions. By comparison, you can go to the secretary of the commonwealth’s website and easily determine which boards and commissions have appointments expiring in 2011, 2012 or 2013.

Virginia Beach has a “talent bank” application easily accessible for those wishing to serve on its boards and commissions. Virginia has a similarly easily accessible application for its appointments. I have yet to locate the application for Norfolk on the city’s website.

There is a concept within economic theory called “learning by doing.” Basically, it says that workers increase their productivity by repeating tasks over and over, perfecting and innovating as they go. Citizens can increase our civic capacity by being engaged and involved, but not if our governments stand in the way.

That civic health report says that “civic education is crucial to the future of democracy.” I consider barriers to civic education, particularly the lack of transparency, a bigger threat to our democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said to Tench Coxe in 1795, “Light and liberty go together.”