Access to government has always been a way (if not the primary way) we judge how vibrant or corrupt our democracy is. Government, and by extension the activities of policymakers, must be as open as possible with little to no privacy because they, and they alone, have the right and responsibility to take away our freedom by limiting our activity. This immense power demands scrutiny as we should not easily hand it over such basic rights to any entity unless we can properly scrutinize its workings to ensure that it is truly working in the public interest.
It is with this in mind that we should turn our attention to redistricting.
The process of redistricting has, by far, the most direct effect on how fair and equal our government truly is. The redistricting process will propel policymakers into power and, when perverted, cause a distortion between the true will of the people and the will of the policymakers. This distortion will create laws that do not meet the needs of the public and, therefore, limit our freedom in ways that may not be in the best interest of the citizenry. To add to this, it is because of the great power that the redistricting process possesses that we must recognize just how easily susceptible it is to greed and corruption.
Let us ask ourselves, what is the enemy of greed and corruption? Information.
And it is for this very reason that I question the constant stonewalling of the Legislative Records Committee and the obstructionist tactics of the Legislative General Council.
The Utah Democratic Party has requested volumes of information regarding the most recent redistricting process to see if lawmakers purposefully created legislative boundaries that favored the Republican Party disproportionately - thereby expanding their political power beyond what is proportionately fair. The response has been disappointing – a bill that is three times the estimation, a General Council who only releases information that was already part of the public domain, a Records Committee who claims that the Democratic Party is only working in their own interest, and a government that continues to deny the people an understanding of how decisions were actually made.
Shame on the Legislative Records Committee members Senator Micheal Waddoups and Representatives Becky Lockhart and David Litvack for erecting a wall around documents that are clearly in the best interest of the public – using the flimsy excuse that the Utah Democratic Party will sue if it finds wrongdoing; therefore making them the primary beneficiary of the information. This logic first ignores the fact that the Democratic Party is made up of the very citizens that may have been harmed by the states actions. How would the tune change if we were denying the poor of information because it may show harm? How about if the redistricting process harmed farmers, or citizens of Provo? None of those are protected classes, yet they would still be citizens that were directly and purposefully discounted to promote a particular agenda – a party affiliation is no different; discrimination is discrimination and for legislative leaders to say “because the poor/rural/citizens of Provo are the only ones to benefit, they should pay.” I argue that, when one citizen’s rights are unfairly taken away, the entire citizenry is harmed.
Shame also to Legislative Research for pulling what amounts to pulling a bait-and-switch; first by grossly underestimating the cost of the Democrat’s request and then then only releasing information that was already in the public domain. These tactics are either the activities of children or the infirm. Have they never done a records request before? Do they not know how to estimate? Do they honestly not know how ridiculous it is to count what amounts to a Google search as part of your “research?” To be fair, if I had to wager a guess, pressure was put on Legislative Research to suppress information as the documents that are legitimate probably do not shed a very favorable light on lawmakers – why else would they pull such a boorish move?
It is clear that access to government is broken and that real reform needs to take place. Although it is impossible to remove bias from government access or fishing expeditions by groups or individuals, there are a few stpes that can be taken to ensure that citizens have reasonable and fair access to government:
- Because there will always be frivolous requests, an Ombudsman should be appointed by legislative leaders of both bodies as well as of the Office of the Governor and the Courts.
- A process should be in place to appeal decisions of rejection by the Ombudsman.
- Funds should be placed into this office to ensure that legitimate requests are fulfilled in a timely manner. Those requesting extremely taxing requests should pay no more than a nominal additional fee (say 1/10th the total cost of the request).
- Any fulfilled request should immediately be made available to the public.
- Whenever possible, documents should be digitized and archived but available for public inspection at any time.
Is this too much to ask? Perhaps, but how important is your democracy to you?
Meanwhile, I hope that the Democrats do ultimately get the information they requested. I am positive that no one party or person will come out smelling like roses – but I also have a gut feeling that information is sitting in those two boxes that will make us question our Republican leaders and their motives. Let the people see how representatives did (or did not) do the peoples business – warts and all.