Originally posted in the Missourian on March 14, 2019.
On Monday, news reports from Anchorage, Alaska, concerning the Iditarod dog-sled race arguably gave us some surprising insight on the power of collective action.
French musher Nicolas Petit was ahead, but he apparently didn’t know what he was going to get when he scolded one of his dogs, Joey, for fighting with a teammate. Apparently, yelling at one’s dogs is a major “faux paw.”
Seemingly out of solidarity with their scolded teammate, the dogs refused to pull the sled. Petit camped out for over five hours as other teams passed him and his doggedly recalcitrant dogs.
One can just imagine what the dogs were saying in dogalese:
- “OK, jerk, pull your own damned sled.”
- “Let’s teach that temperamental Frenchman some manners.”
- “You know what ‘dog’ spelled backward is, right?”
- “All for one, and one for all.”
Although the sports story wasn’t about a typical athletic team, it illustrated teamwork at its apex. Petit ended up withdrawing from the race. The dogs’ move — or refusal to move — was just as effective as taking the car keys away from a misbehaving teenager. All punishments should be so swift and so effective!
That brings me to this question: What should be a swift and effective punishment for politicians who go astray? Or maybe the question is this: What could effectively stop erring politicians in their tracks, just like the dogs stopped Petit?
Maybe there is no such mechanism. There’s the ballot box, but an election might not be that near, so the term “swift” wouldn’t apply. Impeachment? Only in the most egregious circumstances, and that isn’t a swift process, either.
Sometimes politicians are stopped when their pet projects don’t get funded.
But what can voters do when they have clearly let their will be known but some politicians refuse to follow through? The situation in Missouri is worse than a failure to follow through, however. Some Missouri politicians are trying to undo what voters clearly said they want last November: Clean Missouri.
Constitutional Amendment 1, the initiative also known as “Clean Missouri,” covers several topics — lobbying, campaign finances, redistricting and public records. Cole County Judge Dan Green ruled in mid-September that the initiative violated Missouri’s constitutional provision that says a proposed amendment “shall not contain more than one subject.” But the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District overruled Green, deciding that the initiative contained one subject — namely, regulating the Missouri General Assembly. The initiative was back on the ballot.
To get the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, the Clean Missouri coalition had to collect signatures amounting to 8 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election in six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts. The coalition submitted 346,956 signatures to the Missouri Secretary of State for verification.
On Nov. 6, the initiative passed by an overwhelming margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. Because this is “Sunshine Week,” the focus here is on the public records part of Clean Missouri.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Justice Louis Brandeis famously quipped. However, some politicians apparently don’t want sunshine. Do they want a dirty Missouri instead of a clean one?
Here’s what the public records part of Clean Missouri says: “Legislative records shall be public records and subject to generally applicable state laws governing public access to public records, including the Sunshine Law.”
Clean Missouri then defines legislative records very broadly: “Legislative records include, but are not limited to, … all records that are created, stored or distributed through legislative branch facilities, equipment or mechanisms including electronic.”
But House Bill 445 would close some legislative records from public view. Here’s the language of the proposed exemption: “Any document or record, including electronic communications, received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body consisting of advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
Eek! Are any records more important for sunshine’s disinfecting effect than the “advice, opinions and recommendations” connected to the “deliberative decision-making process”?
When studying philosophy, I came to believe that what separates more totalitarian governments from more democratic ones is access to government information.
Lobbyists would perhaps relish having their recommendations placed outside the reach of the Sunshine Law.
What if the “advice, opinions and recommendations” given to legislators are faulty? Maybe they’re based on misinformation — or on biases in favor of the advice-givers’ interests. How does the public counteract what the public is forbidden from seeing?
Bill 445 would be a step backward for transparency in government. Yet it passed the House on Feb. 7. That’s not just an “Eek!” That’s a “Gag!” Literally. Put a gag on the “advice, opinions and recommendations” relating to the “deliberative decision-making process.”
And if the Senate passes this anti-transparency legislation … ?
So much for representative democracy. This attempt to undo the public records part of Clean Missouri is misguided. It’s reprehensible. It’s undemocratic.
What does it mean to live in a representative democracy? It means, in part, that we elect representatives to vote for us — unless we go to the work of gathering enough signatures to get a question on the ballot and then pass the ballot measure.
A margin of 62 to 38 percent in November should have sent a message.
Meanwhile in Alaska, where Frenchman Petit’s dogs sent him a message, Peter Kaiser from that state’s Bethel won the Iditarod.
Sunshine can also bring joy. The biggest ray of local sunshine this week came from Nobel Prize winner George Smith, who is donating his nearly quarter-of-a-million dollars in prize money to the College of Arts and Science for needs-based student scholarships.
Mizzou will also contribute $300,000 for scholarships, according to Chancellor Alexander Cartwright, who said that Mizzou is starting a new tradition of donating $100,000 for scholarships any time a Mizzou faculty member wins a Nobel Prize.
Especially at this time in U.S. history, when student debt has exceeded credit card debt, George Smith’s Nobel Prize gift is noble.
Making that decision to give away the Nobel Prize money — that’s about as likely for most of us as deciding what to say when we receive our Oscars.
Way to go, George Smith! Just when it seemed you couldn’t get any higher in the esteem of your fellows here at Mizzou, you did. You really did!
Sandy Davidson, Ph.D., J.D., teaches communications law at the MU School of Journalism. She is a curators’ distinguished teaching professor and the attorney for the Columbia Missourian.