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  • Last modified 394 days ago (May 17, 2023)

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It’s a big no-know

Ever feel as if the more you pay in taxes the less you know about what government is doing and why?

Blame us. Not the Record specifically — though plenty of people seem to devote the entirety of their waking hours to flaming us on anti-social media.

Blame the media as a whole, particularly huge corporations getting fat by gobbling up local newspapers for their real estate then spitting out picked-clean bones, with ever-thinner papers produced by ever-thinner staffs with ever-thinner backbones.

Time was, if government tried to clamp down on the free flow of information to the people who pay for it, newspapers would be up in arms to protect your right to know.

Nowadays, so few newspapers worthy of the name remain that loud protests end up being silently ignored whispers.

A case in point is how the state courts have been whittling away at what information you can learn about people who break the law.

It used to be that courts would eagerly provide lists of everyone guilty of a misdeed in hope that attention among neighbors might discourage those who regard laws as things to worry about only if you get caught.

In recent years, the courts have put all of this online, but rather than expose it to an information superhighway, they’ve put the information on a mega-costly dirt road.

Journalists used to be able to look up lists of all cases. It was cumbersome and a main contributor to carpel-tunnel to have to click on each case rather than get a printed summary, but at least they all were there in one place.

Suddenly, sometime this week, that ended. No longer can anyone get a list of all cases. Only if you check each individual case number separately can you find out who was speeding or who didn’t pay his or her taxes.

We now have to keep long lists of numbers that we continually have to check and recheck, one at a time, click after click, to see whether anything has been done in the case so we can cross the number off our list.

Worse yet, each time we search, we’re confronted with one of those confounding “captchas” that require you to click on each square that contains a bike or a bridge or stairs or something else, even though most of the pictures are so blurry you can’t tell and you’re never sure whether to click on a square that has only a tiny piece of the sought-after image in it.

No longer are coroner reports available at all. Somehow, they ceased being open public records even though the legislature never acted to include them on the very finite list of items government isn’t legally required to disclose.

Add this to all the secret sessions every elected body seems to relish scheduling, without any way for anyone ever to check whether the sessions did, in fact, qualify for secrecy.

And now the public’s ability to hear what’s being said on police “scanners” seems to be imperiled by a twisted interpretation of a bureaucratic rule designed not to protect police against criminal eavesdroppers but to ensure the privacy of the often criminal elements that police typically check on.

To top it off, local officials are now saying they may need tens of thousands of our dollars to buy new radios even though their current radios already allow secret encryption and their current dispatching procedures easily could be changed to avoid mentioning unnecessary private information.

The one thing that’s always certain in dealing with government is that bureaucrats will find a way to take a rule designed to accomplish one thing and twist it into something else altogether. Education’s FERPA rules, originally designed to keep parents from snooping in the records of adult children going to college, are a prime example. Now they’re being used, as they were by one Marion County district this past week, to try to limit people taking photos at public graduation ceremonies.

One reason government doesn’t want you to know is that they’re afraid you might have better ideas about how to spend 11 years’ worth of taxes than to build new locker rooms or exactly what we really need out of a transfer station, ambulance barn, or health department building, or whether it makes any sense to sell off an ambulance we could have repaired in March and then buy not one but two new ones soon thereafter.

It’s far easier to call those of us who might question lavish expenditures we’d never make with our own money as cheap or anti-progress or anti-education or anti-anything.

Truth is, we’re pro-common sense, and the way anyone gathers common sense is through a free and unfettered flow of information.

Now that media have become wimps like the Wichita TV station that plans to come to town and sell its integrity by offering “interviews” for a fee, the burden of protecting the public’s right to know falls squarely with the public itself.

Collectively, the voice of media outlets has been weakened not so much by new technology as by media owners’ mistakes in how to deal with it. We don’t expect you to shout about public access to information the way we used to, but we respectfully suggest that adding your voice to our whisper might make it just loud enough to be heard.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 17, 2023

 

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