March 7, 2014 11:13:08 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
A few months ago, we paused to reflect on the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which included the inspiring line: "...this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
It is a phrase even school children recognize, yet sometimes we wonder if our elected leaders ever really reflect on what it means to have a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
It means citizens have a right and, in fact, a duty to perform an active role in our government at every level, and that those to whom we entrust the necessary duties of governance will honor those rights.
Yet, there are times when our elected officials appear to be bent on locking the public out of that process. They do this by holding non-quorum meetings, which deny citizens the opportunity to attend the meetings and hear the discussions. They often pick and choose which public information they will make available to the public or needlessly delay releasing that information.
There are rules to prevent these kinds of abuses of power, Freedom of Information Act and Open Meeting Laws. Any citizen can request public information by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. But even then, government entities can wait seven days to supply that information and charge a fee to cover whatever expense is incurred.
In practice, most requests for public information come through the media. It is the media's role, one protected by the U.S. Constitution, to be the community's watchdog by holding government officials accountable.
Why is this information important to the average citizen?
Suppose your next-door neighbor has been arrested for a felony. Do you have a right to know about it? Would you like to know if that neighbor has been released from custody? Isn't that information important to your personal safety?
The Columbus Police Department typically waits four or five days before releasing information on felony arrests. Often, the suspect has been released days before the CPD has released any information at all. Even then, the CPD picks and chooses which public information it will allow the public, through the media, to access. This policy apparently has the approval of CPD Chief Selvain McQueen.
If anything, Mayor Robert Smith has been even more dismissive of the public's right to speedy access to public information than McQueen.
This is how ridiculous the situation has gotten: On Thursday, the Dispatch contacted Pat Mitchell, the city's human resources director, to ask for a list of city employees. Mitchell said that information would only be released if the city was compelled to provide it through a FOIA request. Mitchell said she had been instructed not to release any public information without such an official request.
Let that sink in for a moment: The city will not release a list of its employees unless it is compelled to do so by what is, essentially, a legal action.
Basically, the city -- either at order or consent of the mayor -- is telling the public that the city will not release public information unless is forced to do so, and even then, a week from the date requested.
This is are not only a insult to the citizens of Columbus, it also does our elected officials grievous harm, whether they realize it or not. Withholding or needlessly delaying the release of public information or meeting privately to discuss public business creates an air of suspicion. Citizens might rightfully wonder why these leaders are acting so secretively.
As you consider the city's conduct in these matters, you might reflect on Lincoln's belief in government "of the people, for the people, by the people."
If that reflection stirs you to action, as it should, call the mayor and demand that the city of Columbus live up to Lincoln's words.
The mayor's office number is 328-7021. His city-issued cell phone number is 364-0433.