Transparency should be issue that transcends party politics

Published 6:36 am Thursday, July 6, 2017

By Steve Stewart

The Frankfort State Journal

Common ground is rare in today’s political climate. When Democrats, Republicans and independents find it, they should plant a flag and protect it fiercely.

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Transparency in government is one such opportunity. Open government, both in spirit and in law, behooves a democracy, its political subdivisions and its people. Embraced consistently, it rewards and punishes parties, politicians and special interests indiscriminately — but always to the benefit of an informed citizenry.

Some recent examples in Kentucky of opportunities missed:

• A libertarian think tank’s call for modernization of the state’s open-meetings and open-record laws has gotten a chilly reception from some because of the conservative political leanings of the group proposing it and from other sunshine advocates because a Johnny-come-lately invaded their turf. Anyone sincerely interested in updating the laws to reflect revolutionary technological change in the decades since they were enacted should welcome the interest and help of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Decisions and the director of its Center for Open Government, Amye Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general who is arguably the leading expert on sunshine laws in Kentucky.

• U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., voluntarily released his personal income tax return this week and questioned why Gov. Matt Bevin, a fellow Republican and former political rival, hasn’t done the same. Bevin should do so. So should President Donald Trump. And every future governor and president, including Democratic ones. If you want to hold high office and make decisions that affect the personal finances of the people you govern, you should disclose your own.

• A judge in eastern Kentucky last year entered an order unsealing documents that would reveal, among other things, how the maker of the highly addictive drug OxyContin marketed it to doctors and patients in a state wrecked by prescription drug abuse. Purdue Pharma, the drug company, wants the Kentucky Court of Appeals to block the order, claiming a $24 million lawsuit settlement with the commonwealth included a provision to keep discovery documents in the lawsuit secret. Attorney General Andy Beshear, normally a champion of openness, has refused to intervene with journalists seeking access to the records, raising eyebrows about his silence. Of note, Beshear’s former law firm represented Purdue.

This columnist is a confessed radical about open government. Unless it compromises public safety, a government document or discussion by public officials is the people’s business, in my view. State and federal laws allow a few more exemptions, but thankfully, most activity of the government and its agents is open to public inspection. Nonpartisan cooperation and advocacy are needed to keep it that way.