Paradigm shifts are taking place everywhere in politics, and Rio Rancho is not immune. At the most recent city council meeting, District 2 councilor Dawnn Robinson brought a serious challenge to the political construct that has a long standing history of abuse and corruption. The resolution introduced is an attempt to bring transparency to the decision making process for more complicated issues, and (hopefully) protect governing body members from violating the Open Meetings Act which is designed to deter rolling quorums.

The dialogue that took place was heated (to say the least) and lines were drawn fairly quickly with Robinson, Cheryl Everett, and Lonnie Clayton in support, and Mark Scott and Chuck Wilkins against. Counselor Smith and Mayor Hull didn’t show their cards until much later in the discussion.

The Proposal

Counsilor Robinson’s proposal was to amend governing body rules to allow the counsel to create per issue committees that would have allowed city counselors to work together with city staff and the public which would protect the counsel from violating the Open Meetings Act. Scott and Wilkins opposed the proposal stating that, while well-intentioned (pat on the head) it created only the illusion of protection (from having a rolling quorum) and didn’t do anything that the council couldn’t already do. Which is true, so why fight it?

The Illusion of Protection

Constitutional government is supposed to have a system of checks and balances on governing bodes. That’s kind of the hallmark of the American experiment (limiting government politicians, not citizens). The Open Meetings Act (ostensibly) keeps governing body members from getting together outside of official public meetings, in majority, to discuss city business that will be voted upon. It is designed to avoid the rolling quorum – the idea that a governing body keeps moving so as to fool the public about what they are doing, planning, and making into law. Councilor Robinson’s proposal would have allowed any combination of three governing body members to collaborate with staff and citizens on some of the more difficult issues facing the city. Robinson explained that discussions would be at official meetings, where the public could be present (and even participate with the council as equals), and thus be in compliance with state law. But to understand the illusion of protection, we must first understand the illusion of transparency. You see the Open Meetings Act was also designed as a checks and balances on government making government more open and transparent and punishing those who hide in the shadows.

The problem is that the law is virtually unenforceable without officials going out of their way to cover their tracks. For example, only an official’s government issued email can be examined under the Freedom of Information Act; same with government issued cell phones and only under judicial subpoena can a representative’s personal email and phone records be investigated, and that first requires reasonable cause – something a simple accusation cannot produce. So under the Open Meetings Act, only those elected officials who fail to cover their tracks will be found out and prosecuted, and that is if someone else is keeping a look out. Those officials who are inclined to hide things from the public, are inclined to also cover their tracks and squeeze through loopholes. Those who are not inclined to hide things form the public will usually have no problem complying with the law … at least for a time.

So if those officials who want to hide from the public are going to do so anyway, then how does Counselor Robinson’s proposal offer protection. Well, it doesn’t. What it does is puts counselors in a precarious position outside of official meetings. If Councilors X, Y, and Z are on a committee together, then Councilor Z can’t go talk to Counselor A without violating the law. That’s right, the majority of the counsel doesn’t have to meet at the same time or in the same place to violate the law. If Councilor X calls Councilor Y, and Councilor Y emails Councilor Z, and Councilor Z has coffee with Councilor A (all to talk about the same issue that they are voting on), then those councilors have violated the rolling quorum. But what’s to stop committee member and Councilor Z from talking to Counselor A? Nothing. Except the threat of legal action which will, again, only happen if they get caught. But if Councilor Z is in the habit of talking to Councilor A, either both councilors will stay off the committees, or people in the know may begin watching more closely to see if they slip up. Thus we’re back to square one – the illusion of transparency, and by extension an illusion of protection.

It Changes Nothing

This is also (theoretically) true. Committees don’t allow anything that the councilors can’t already do. But let’s say that Councilors A and Z, are already in the habit of working together on a particular issue and Councilors B and C have need Councilor A’s expertise. B and C can’t approach A because A has already been talking to Z about the issue. But, if Councilors A and Z had to deal with the committee, then (theoretically) this would force A to stop communication with Z on that particular issue. So while it doesn’t technically change anything, it could break up behind-the-scenes alliances on the council.

Now That’s a Threat!

As Lord Acton famously said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” With any given system, no matter how good the checks and balances are, there will always be those who learn how to use the system to their advantage. This is a natural human tendency that we are all subject to and power only intensifies our inclination and capacity towards corruption. Perhaps a well-intentioned person runs for office with the objective of “fixing the corrupt system,” gets elected, and has to learn the very system he hates in order to get things done. If, then, there ever comes an opportunity to actually change the system (which is rare in itself) it may be too late. That well-intentioned elected official may already be accustomed to the power they’ve gained, even without realizing it, and all those with power will fight to keep it.

If you’ve noticed, elections in America happen every two years, and elected office is staggered in a such a way that terms are either 2, 4, or 6 years long (with a handful of exceptions). This turnover in politics is designed to get new blood into the system (hopefully) to challenge the corrupt and keep new systems of checks and balances cycling through. But this doesn’t always happen, and in fact, most of the time newcomers to the political scene unwittingly get sucked into the game.

The Challenge of Limited Government

Corruption is a curious thing – it’s kind of like rain. A few drops are useful for a particular end. As it gets heavier you see more good things happening as a result, and you begin to appreciate the rain. But then it starts raining harder, and your inclination is to say, “I can take it.” The roof starts leaking, and water (like corruption) has this funny way of finding the weak spots and with enough in one concentrated area, the water breaks through a structure and destroys everything in it’s path. The damage that results is far weightier than if someone had been vigilant in fixing the broken system. This can take a long time, but corruption (like water) is patient and persistent. If someone comes along to patch the whole, water will either try to get through in the same place, or find it’s way to another weakness – which it eventually finds.

The challenge of limiting government is knowing when to call out your own. When was the last time you saw the Republican Party or the Democratic Party call their own members to the carpet for making poor choices or getting sucked into the corruption? It’s very easy for everyone – anyone – to get sucked in. Benjamin Franklin promised us a republican form of government but only if we could keep it through eternal vigilance. But that vigilance requires that we keep all elected officials in check – especially the ones we like. The temptation to consolidate power in the name of “government efficiency” will always be there, rare are those who resist that temptation.