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Is open government worth fighting for?

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I’m not in this for the fight. 

But some things are worth fighting for. Freedom is at the top of the list. Ours is a nation built on and around freedom: the freedom to worship, to speak, to read, to write, to live your life in peace with a reasonable expectation of privacy.

It’s freedom from government intrusion into your life, as well as the freedom only a government of laws can guarantee for its citizens — because, without a government of laws, human nature would probably dictate a return to the rules of the playground, where people who are bigger and stronger and more powerful bully and intimidate the smaller, weaker and more meek.

Freedom and democracy and representative government. These are the threads of the very fabric of our society.

I personally believe very strongly that transparency in government is essential to guarantee a representative government, and, ultimately, the democracy and freedom we enjoy in America. That’s why RiverheadLOCAL sponsored a forum on open government and freedom of information this week. And that’s why I personally invited our town and school district elected officials to the forum, where I arranged for the executive director of the N.Y. State Committee on Open Government to speak and answer questions.

It seemed to me a potentially more productive way to deal with some of the frictions I’ve seen growing in our community over government transparency, as well as some of the violations of the state open government laws I’ve personally witnessed over the years, than using this “bully pulpit” to beat up on people.

Like I said, I’m not in this for the fight.

The forum had terrific attendance by town officials — some of whom, judging by their demeanor at least, attended because the supervisor gave the order.

Some people in government think this is a farce. They apparently don’t share my view about the importance of transparency in government.

But it’s no farce, fellas. Most of what’s wrong with government in America today — in the big picture, starting with Washington — is a result of backroom dealings between lobbyists and elected officials who no longer represent the people that represent them.

This holds true on the local level as well, certainly on a smaller scale in terms of the issues at hand, but true nonetheless.

It increasingly seems to be the expectation of people in government that the people they govern should just butt out and leave things to the powers that be. And when members of the public, ordinary citizens whose interest in what’s going on in town hall is derived from wanting to know what’s going on in their community and how the face of their community is going to be changed by decisions made in town hall… well, how dare they. Just who do they think they are?

These people, these community activists, should mind their own business and leave the running of this town…this county…this state…this nation… to the pros: the big boys on the playground.

And if they insist on being in the mix, they become the enemy.

The public as enemy?

I’m not familiar with all the ins and outs of how or why Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition cofounders Phil Barbato and Dominique Mendez became the enemy in the eyes of some of the members of the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals. I know they questioned the board’s actions. They criticized rulings. They even brought a lawsuit or two — freedom rearing its ugly head. Frankly, I probably haven’t paid close enough personal attention to some of the underlying issues that led to the current state of affairs.

But when my report on Mendez’s request to the town board to ask the ZBA to hold its “work sessions” in the town hall meeting room rather than in the planning department office across the hall, got me screamed at by the ZBA’s lawyer Scott DeSimone, it was obvious that something was terribly wrong and broken.

On the playground

“She’s a bomb thrower and a liar and I think you like it that way,” DeSimone sneered, growing red in the face.

DeSimone yelled to me from across the meeting room last Thursday, April 19, as I was packing up my laptop. My reporting on Mendez’s comments were “irresponsible journalism,” he said. He accused me of “sandbagging” the ZBA chairman by calling him the next day to get a response to Mendez’s comments. He accused me of soliciting Fred McLaughlin’s comment on the location of ZBA work sessions without telling him what Mendez said — which was completely false. The very purpose of my call was to get a response to her remarks — a method of reporting that is the very essence of responsible. He might have a gripe if I reported her comments without getting a response from the ZBA chair, in my estimation. But I did the responsible thing. And it got me screamed at.

I was taken aback by this man’s behavior. I have met him perhaps once in my life, if that. I don’t know where he was coming from, but as a town-contracted employee (he is outside counsel to the ZBA) I find it offensive he seems to think it’s OK to yell at Riverhead citizens. You have a complaint about something I report, take it up with me in a civilzed fashion.

I immediately complained to McLaughlin. I wanted to know if he’d told DeSimone our interview the day after the town board meeting was under any false pretenses. I told him in no uncertain terms how unhappy I was being yelled at by the ZBA lawyer in that manner, out of the blue. He sort of apologized, but I’ve since learned he made comments indicating he wasn’t sure if he believed me about how DeSimone jumped on me after the meeting.

This is the part where playground rules come into play, I guess.

In the men’s room?

Last night, the ZBA took its work session into the town hall meeting room. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because the supervisor said he would insist on it. Maybe it was because McLaughlin in that interview that bothered his lawyer so much, said that’s what they’d do — though after DeSimone went ballistic, McLaughlin backpedaled.

Before they moved into the meeting room, the ZBA members gathered in the planning department’s cramped office before the 7:15 p.m. meeting, as is their custom. Since state law says the meeting is open, regardless of where they convene it, I went into the office.

After I entered the office, the newest ZBA member, Leroy Barnes, asked me if I wanted to go with him to the men’s room. His message was clear: He considered my presence in the planning department office no more appropriate than my presence in the men’s room.

Good grief, Leroy. Really?

All I can say, folks, is get a grip. The public is not the enemy. In government, it’s not easy being scrutinized and second-guessed about everything. I know. But in government, the business you’re conducting is the public’s business. And the public has a right to know what’s going on, and a right to express their opinions.

This is America and these are the principles that men like Fred McLaughlin put on a U.S. military uniform to fight for, are they not?

I also believe that the people who serve in government are not the enemy either. I believe — I know — most everyone who gets involved in government does it because they want to make a positive contribution to their community and the larger society.

In my opinion, it’s time for fences to be mended and cooler heads to prevail. 

But if it takes a fight to preserve the freedom we cherish in America — freedom that starts with an open, transparent government, even on the most local of levels — then so be it. Count me in.

 

Denise Civiletti, reporter, editor, digital maven and former newspaper editor and publisher, lives and works in Riverhead. She is an attorney (JD, NYU School of Law, 1982) and a former Riverhead Town Councilwoman (1988-1991).