The 8th District transparency debate

Sunday, February 3, 2013

There are bigger debates to be had in these days and times.

Fiscal responsibility. Immigration. Gun control. Gay marriage. Global warming. The future role of running quarterbacks in the NFL ... .

With all of these debates, there is scarce thought or discussion on radio waves, talk shows or at the water cooler about the subtleties of transparent government.

As a newspaperman, I have an agenda for open government. It's crucial to what we do here to inform the public, but transparency works on a larger level to prevent corruption and preserve democracy. Transparency is becoming an issue in the nomination of our next 8th District congressman or congresswoman.

Let me start by asking two simple questions.

Do you believe a group of individuals tasked by law to select a nominee for Congress is performing a public role?

Do you believe the people who are selecting these individuals ought to be able to keep their votes secret?

For those not familiar with the process to replace our representative in Congress, a special election will take place June 4. Normal election cycles allow for a primary election to select the preferred candidate in each party. The process to replace a congresswoman who resigns unexpectedly, however, puts our representative fate into the hands of the most dedicated political junkies Southern Missouri has to offer -- people who take the time to get to know our politicians and raise money for them. They knock on doors during campaigns, they organize events and lead the grassroots charge for their parties. The 8th District committees are comprised of the chairs and vice chairs of smaller committees formed at the county and state House district levels. On the Republican side, there are 86 of these individuals who cast 100 votes.

Let that sink in for just a minute.

These 86 individuals will be choosing on behalf of you, me and hundreds of thousands of registered voters in the district. These smaller committees, as well as the 8th District committee, are established by state law to replace our primary votes. It is a big role to play, particularly if voters have strong opinions about the politicians hoping to gain the seat. There are some polarizing figures among the 12 Republicans identified as hopefuls.

So I'll ask you the same question again, but in a different way. Does this feel like a public body to you? It does to me, and it does to two attorneys I've spoken with about the matter. Granted, both share my advocacy position on transparency in government.

I don't have the space necessary to spell out specific "public body" definitions defined by the Sunshine Law. The law appears to be pretty liberal [interpretively, not politically] on that idea. The law does not specifically cite political committees as public bodies, but the Missouri Attorney General's office issued a formal, albeit nonbinding, opinion on that matter in 1976.

An attorney representing the Missouri Republican Party told reporter Erin Ragan last week the matter isn't as simple as it may seem in the Sunshine Law handbook, and there are federal cases that support the separation of government from political parties.

That may be true, and such separation may be necessary, but the larger question is whether that position promotes good government, especially when it comes to nominating candidates for public office.

The committee's vote Feb. 9 isn't to decide rules about party membership, a platform, a building purchase or even on how to organize support for a candidate. The vote is to present to the public the person who very well may vote on behalf of you and me on fiscal responsibility, gun control, immigration, abortion and the great debates of our time.

Now on to the second question. The secret vote question. If the answer to the first question is no, then the second question doesn't matter.

Secret voting is a process new to us at the Southeast Missourian. We cover all sorts of government entities -- from city councils to school boards to county commissions. Never, at least as long as I can remember, have we covered an open public meeting where secret ballots were cast. So we naturally asked the question. Is this right?

I feel empathy for these committee members. Disclosure: My brother-in-law, Scott R. Clark, is a member of the 8th District Republican Committee. We try to make it a point not to talk local politics [he and I have not spoken with each other about any of the issues I've addressed today], but because of this relationship I know the tremendous amount of time and commitment he and others put into this process; not just this selection but all of the other meetings and events they organize and attend. Most people making this decision are ordinary people, not politicians, who have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between friends and political allies. It's not easy for them, and I empathize with their desire to keep their votes secret, whether to protect personal or political relationships. When you and I vote in elections, we go to a booth, make our choice and don't have to tell a soul. There is power in that.

Would we vote differently, or at all, if everyone knew for whom we voted? Would we feel intimidated? Threatened? That possibility exists. Therein lies the argument for casting secret ballots.

But Feb. 9 represents something different. This is not voting for yourself and your own convictions. It is voting on behalf of everyone in your party within the 8th Congressional District.

The case to be made for not having a secret vote is accountability. I could lay out scenarios, but it's a simple concept. The law has removed my choice and power to select my next representative, and placed it into the hands of many people I don't know. If the law requires [as I think it does] that they cast "public votes" then there is power in that, too. Transparency puts power into the public's hands.

In my opinion, the Sunshine Law is fuzzy on the legality of secret ballots. Public bodies require public meetings, which require public votes. That's oversimplified, but it sums up the argument I get from the attorneys with whom I have spoken. There are finer points that could be argued another way. Even votes made in closed meetings must be recorded and made public after a period of time.

The 8th District Republicans, for their part, have been admirably open in their process to this point. Based on their position, they are open [and then closed] out of choice, not necessity.

The GOP has been very organized and has followed laws that set the framework for the nomination process.

If committee members believe laws and rules are vital to this process, then I would hope they will consider the transparency laws in Section 610 of the Missouri statutes just as important as section 115 that establishes the committee's conception.

The person chosen to be our next representative will be on the front lines of those big debates in which we all will engage. My hope, ultimately, is that everyone can be confident in the process. The matter of transparency doesn't get a lot of air play, but I believe it's important. And I hope the committee will do what's right.

Bob Miller is editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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