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Transparency: a tired refrain

For 40 years I’ve been having this conversation with newspaper readers, with elected officials, public employees  — even their lawyers, who often are less ignorant of the law than they are adept at looking for ways around it — and it’s getting old.

If you think that sounds condescending, then I’ll bet you think this song is about you … and it is.

Transparency is the name of this tune, and it is about everyone. If you’re a voter, it’s about your ability to trust your government and all of its extensions. If you also happen to be a public servant, it’s about your ability to gain and maintain the trust of all the rest of the voters. It’s about your responsible handling of the information with which you have been entrusted, and it’s about your willingness and responsibility to account for your actions.

You’re being transparent if you are obeying those laws. If you’re not, be prepared to be viewed as irresponsible, defiant, arrogant, controlling, suspicious and having something to hide. There are additional relevant adjectives, but you get the gist.

Unfortunately, some public agencies just don’t care. They appear determined to undermine open meetings and open records laws, forcing their opponents into court and spending taxpayer money to pay the legal fees. Public relations be damned.

Institutions of higher learning are now among those trying hardest to avoid the sunshine, to hide in the shadows.

The University of Kentucky has sued its student newspaper in an attempt to avoid complying with an attorney general’s order to release information — even to the attorney general himself — about how it handled allegations of sexual misconduct by a professor. The independent student newspaper will have legal fees in the tens of thousands, at least. Fortunately, it has financial support from the professional community.

Northern Kentucky University is requesting a gag order be issued in a lawsuit over the school’s handling of an alleged rape in a dorm three years ago. The victim claims the school and police mishandled the investigation. A local newspaper, on its own dime, has asked through its lawyer to intervene.

If you are the parent or prospective parent of a college student, you deserve to know how these problems are being handled. Hell, if you pay taxes, you deserve to know.

The universities argue they are trying to protect the privacy of the victims. But the identities of victims have in no way been revealed by either the professional or student media, and they wouldn’t be even if they were in hand. The universities know this. They are kidding no one about their real motives.

What they don’t want is anyone but their lawyers diving into their policies or the way they handled the situations in question. They don’t want to be examined or held accountable publicly. That’s all we can assume, based on their actions.

But the schools aren’t alone in their accountability fears. The Kentucky Horse Park Commission recently tried to keep a Lexington Herald-Leader reporter from an “invitation-only” meeting about the future of the park. How is that justifiable? It’s not, and after some pressure, the reporter eventually was allowed into the meeting. But the commission’s notion that it could get away with a secret meeting on so broad a topic is incredibly frustrating.

These are just the most troubling and visible in a recent wave of incidents occurring at every level of government almost every day. There are state agencies, city councils, fiscal courts and school boards across Kentucky that often act in either complete ignorance or complete disdain for the laws requiring they conduct business openly.

Most public agencies and officials try to do the right thing, and most who don’t are usually undereducated or ill-advised. But it doesn’t take much of an effort, or a law degree, to understand the rules, rules that are handed to all elected officials on their first day.

A responsible local press spends a good deal of its time educating and re-educating public officials about what their responsibilities are under the law, and holding them accountable. It’s easier in some communities than in others. But there is no denying that 40 years since this state passed laws that attempt to guarantee transparency, enforcing them remains a challenge.

So while this tired refrain is getting old, those of us who care will continue to put it to music whenever necessary.