The Culture Of Secrecy In Government

A culture of secrecy exists among local government officials

The business of government should be conducted as openly and transparently as possible. Every organization has a culture, a predominating attitude and behavior by which it operates. Government officials are supposed to serve the interests of the public, yet many government entities including those at the local level operate with a culture of secrecy.

Why is it that government officials frequently resist making information available to the public? Robert Freeman, a noted authority on government who serves as the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, says, “I have to suggest to people in government all the time that embarrassment is not one of the grounds for withholding records.”

Examples of local government secrecy

Whether due to embarrassment or other reasons, there have been several recent instances reported in the news media of local governments refusing to disclose information to the public. In August 2010, the Buffalo News in frustration wrote an editorial with a headline directed to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, which stated “Mayor, stop stonewalling and release records.” The News editorial was in regard to the travel records of Timothy Wannamaker, a former high-level city employee who was arrested on federal charges for using public dollars for personal expenses. In its editorial, the Buffalo News stated: “The law is clear. When we request city records, you must provide them, completely and in a timely manner. You’re stonewalling. So, with all due respect, Mayor, cut it out.”

Other local government examples of the culture of secrecy highlighted in recent Buffalo News headlines include:

• “Lawyer Fees in Stadium Lease Talks Called Secret…Firm, County Mum as Disclosure Is Urged” (6/4/12)

• “Hamburg Settlement Shrouded In Secrecy…Town Won’t Disclose Discipline in Police Case” (6/29/12)

• “Intolerable Secrecy…Buffalo City Schools Hiding Critical Information From the Public” (7/31/12)

Secret Tonawanda Town Board meetings

Through my own research, I have discovered additional examples of the secretive culture of our local governments. Reviewing three years of meeting minutes for the Town of Tonawanda Town Board, I learned that Town Board members meet for lengthy periods of time on a regular basis in closed-door executive sessions. While executive sessions are allowed under the law, they should be a rare occurrence. Virtually every single Town Board work session in the Town of Tonawanda involves the calling of a closed-door executive session. From 2008 to 2010, the executive sessions held by the Tonawanda Town Board averaged 60 minutes, while the public board meetings averaged 54 minutes. The Tonawanda Town Board as a regular course of business actually meets in private longer than they do in public. Talk about a culture of secrecy!

Secret Association of Erie County Government meetings

Over the years I have seen mention of the Association of Erie County Governments. The association, which consists of local elected officials throughout Erie County, meets monthly to discuss and address common areas of interest. The association at times debates and passes resolutions, taking a stand on local government issues.

It is great that there is an association that brings elected officials representing different municipalities together to discuss common areas of interest. Our elected officials do not work together across geographic boundaries as much as they should.

Trying to find a way to contact anyone from the Association of Erie County Governments is not easy as they do not maintain a website. As a citizen interested in government, I tracked down an e-mail address for the association and asked if it was possible to attend one of their meetings just to observe what was discussed. I was informed by the association’s executive director that, per their by-laws, meetings were only open to the members of the association, and that as a member of the public I could not attend.

In a followup email, I expressed my surprise that an organization of elected officials who regularly conduct business in public would exclude the public from their association meetings. I asked if my interest in attending association meetings could be discussed by association members. A few weeks later, I received a response from Leonard Pero, the town supervisor of Brant and the president of the Association of Erie County Governments, informing me that my interest in attending association meetings was discussed and denied.

I have since requested a copy of the association’s budget, bylaws, and members to learn more about the operations of this secret organization consisting of elected officials.

Buffalo CitiStat secrecy

Mayor Brown frequently touts the open and transparent way that city government is operated by his administration. Typically, at least once per week, city department heads meet before a panel of high-ranking city officials to answer questions through a program referred to as CitiStat. When I served as chief of staff to the Buffalo Common Council, I would regularly attend CitiStat meetings.

While no longer a city employee, due to my interest in government, I recently contacted the person in charge of overseeing the CitiStat program to find out when an upcoming CitiStat meeting was being held and what department was appearing. I sent several e-mails requesting what I thought was not difficult or secret information, yet I did not receive a response. After weeks of more e-mails and no response, I contacted the CitiStat panel, including the mayor, explaining the information I was seeking and the lack of response I was receiving. Finally I received a response indicating that the city’s law department would respond to my request.

An attorney from the law department advised that the CitiStat meetings were not subject to the state Open Meetings law, that they were not obligated to advise me of meeting dates, and that if I wanted any of the information presented at the meetings, I would have to file a Freedom of Information request.

How amazing is it that a request to simply find out when a meeting that is televised is occurring requires the involvement of the law department and the issuance of a legal opinion that the city does not have to advise citizens as to when a meeting is occurring? Each CitiStat meeting involves the display of PowerPoint slides, which are shown on TV. Instead of simply having an extra copy made of the slides that are provided to panel members for citizens, one has to file a Freedom of Information request and wait months for a response.

So much for a mayor and administration dedicated to open and transparent government.

Adopting an open government policy

The legal right to request information from government officials has not been in existence for very long. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Law on July 4, 1966. According to Johnson’s press secretary, Bill Moyers, “LBJ had to be dragged, kicking and screaming…he hated the very idea of open government, hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the official view of reality.”

Apparently many local government officials today still feel the way Johnson did back in 1966.

As citizens we are entitled to and deserve government that is open and transparent. Local governments across the country have proactively adopted an open government policy that:

• expresses a commitment to open government;

• creates an open government advisory board;

• develops an open government plan;

• creates open government portals on municipal websites;

• allows for monitoring and evaluation of progress in implementing an open government plan.

An open government plan includes specific steps to address transparency (operating more openly, and publishing more information online), public participation, and collaboration among departments, the private sector, nonprofits, educational institutions, and the public.

The type of information that can and should be available to the public on-line include: building and demolition permits, crime statistics, health department inspections, and real-time public transportation schedules.

The culture of secrecy is very much alive in Buffalo area local governments. One action that citizens can take is to advocate for their local government to adopt an open government policy that will set forth specific steps that local elected officials must address to conduct their work in a more open and transparent way.

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Dick Davies

There’s another aspect of how secrecy is like shooting yourself in the head, twice.

(Bill) Joy’s Law is “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” To keep government results from going from average to lowest common denominator, government needs the aid of those citizens who have the direct experience and talent to raise performance.

Oh yeah, citizens are paying for their government. too, and we are entering a time when government is going to be governed by the Golden Rule, “He who pays the gold makes the rules.”

Awesome post, Paul.

Mark S. Kelley

Great post Paul. This is not just an issue for local governments though, the Fed has serious issues with working in a transparent way still. Again, great post.

Ramona Winkelbauer

When is it secrecy or holding information confidential: and, which data sets should remain less than open and why? E.g., the recent FOIA request by a newspaper that then did a mashup on the information provided, and published a map of people registered for gun permits:

When should citizen/s have confidentiality in her/his dealings with government? Or, to bring it closer to home, if you do a search on your name, your salary information is public information —- combine enough data sets and what isn’t public knowledge?

Dannielle Blumenthal

Ramona makes a good point. Also, secretiveness is pretty typical of any ruling class. That is why there have to be checks and balances that facilitate oversight. Like the saying: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Peter Sperry

I’ve had opportunities to see the difference between how elected officials make decisions behind closed doors vs making them in public. In general, the closed door discussions are orders of magnitude more honest and productive. Taking away the public, press and cameras does wonders for the open exchange of ideas. Woodrow Wilson wrot about this almost 100 years ago and said “The Floor of Congress is for show; the committee rooms are for work.” Now that committee meetings are televised, they have also become more show than substance.