Here in the United States of America, most of us take pride in following the laws passed by our politicians. Even laws we disagree with. There are certain cases when, out of protest against laws violating individual liberty, some people practice civil disobedience, but most of us are nonviolent and take that moral and legal standard as a given, most of us pay our taxes despite some of us disagreeing with how our tax dollars are spent and most of us adhere to regulations even despite some of us disagreeing with regulations imposed on us. In this sense, although many of us dislike the politicians- the ones who write and execute our laws- and although many of us do not respect them, we do respect the rule of law; we do respect the democratic process by which our politicians are either elected or subsequently appointed by those we elected; we do respect the fact that we are, for better or for worst, under their leadership.
We Americans are fortunate to live in a country where we can practice the religion of our choice, say whatever we want, own private property, keep a lot of our money, spend a lot of our money how we choose, vote for our politicians, persue our dreams, and generally, enjoy the luxury of feeling safe.
Although it is true that there are disturbing cases of violence everyday, that we have been attacked by terrorists twice in the last year, that the Obama administration has been lying to us pathologically, and has been attacking our individual liberty- even our freedom of speech – and although we are in 17 trillion dollars of debt; although this country has been heading towards an unfortunate direction, we are still better off than any other country in the world and to that extent we owe our politicians gratitude. Beyond that gratitude however, we have the responsibility to hold them to the highest standards possible, and before even delving into the more complex, divisive aspects of those standards our top priority is ensuring that our politicians are completely honest with us. That means they must explain to us as clearly as possible the essence of the laws or ordinances they vote on or execute, how they make their political decisions and how those decisions benefit us. (That means politicians like Nancy Pelosi, who tell us to read the bill after we pass it, are dishonest and unacceptable)
If we do not require them to be honest with us, they can do whatever they want; they can vote in favor of bills before we can read them, but then we implicitly enable them to govern, not as protectors, but rather, as controllers and destroyers; they can tax us, regulate us and even sabatoge us.
To some people, the prospect of any governing body in America destroying and sabotaging our lives is nothing more than a paranoid suggestion. If that is the case, why are so many elected and appointed officials evading our questions? There are only two possible reasons for this: 1) National security purposes; 2) Fear that answering questions will result in being fired and facing criminal charges. And in either case, wouldn’t they at least want to give the impression that their silence is to our benefit? One would think so, yet I have learned that, surprisingly, this is not typically the case. In many cases, when our elected and appointed officials are questioned, they evade the questions and this is quite disconcerting. It is even more disconcerting that some governing bodies in America try to use intimidation as a means of discouraging people from asking questions.
I encountered this problem a year ago at a town hall meeting held by my Congresssman Rush Holt, at numerous town council meetings in East Windsor, NJ, and the Robbinsville, NJ town council meeting I attended last week.
At the town hall meeting last year, I asked congressman Rush Holt about what he would do to address our debt, high taxes, and the devaluation of the dollar caused by the Federal Reserve printing more and more money, and he refused to directly answer my question. Instead he said he would address my concern “later” during the meeting, and that I should ask also Ron Paul about it. He did not address the debt or the Federal Reserve at all, and all he said about taxes was that millionaires and billionaires should pay higher taxes than everyone else which indicated that he is staunchly resentful of wealth and a proud violater of individual liberty.
Of the four town council meetings I attended in East Windsor-where I live- on only one occasion did the mayor and town council answer my questions, and only some of them, and some of the questions had to be asked several times. I had to ask them “how much debt are we in?” four times before getting an answer. Many of my questions remain unanswered unfortunately. I asked the mayor and the council if they would consider making issues such as transparency, eliminating debt, and restoring individual libverty their priorities, instead of increasing taxes, further developing recreational parks, doing roadwork, propping up busisiness, et cetera; I asked how we accumulated $20 million of debt, who we owe the money to, if they would create a user friendly budget, and if they would stop spending tax dollars on misleading projects such as “economic development” (which is not really “economic development” but rather the act of the government essentially spending money on enticing specific companies they would like to lure into their municipality). What is really upsetting is the fact that when I told the mayor and the council that I was disappointed that they didn’t answer these questions, and asked them again, the mayor actually began speaking over me, going on about highway development. That reveals quite clearly how the town council regards those who wish to better understand and question their way of governing.
The town council meeting I attended in Robbinsville the other week was the most problematic. (There was a hearing on the budget that night and the mayor wasn’t even present! And interestingly one of the items on the budget proposal was a $2,000 raise for the absent mayor!) I asked the council if they would consider outsourcing their services to private companies, as is done in towns like Sandy Springs, Georgia. I also asked them what their vision of Robbinsville’s future was. They did not answer my questions. Instead I was told that this was a “public comment” and that they were not obligated to answer my questions. So I explained to them that the public comment is of no use if the public comment gets no response, which tends to be the case at many town hall and town council meetings. I then asked if there was an ordinance stating that it is illegal for town council members to answer questions during the public comment and they said “no”. So I asked in response, if in theory, they could voluntarily answer questions out of respect for their constituents, and the council finally began to answer my original questions.
I started to get the sense that the Robbinsville town council wasn’t as bad as I thought- that they just needed to be pressed- but I was mistaken, as I learned, during the public hearing on the budget. When I asked the council why they were proposing an $18,000 increase for their planning board, they told me it was to appeal a court decision allowing Sharbell Development to convert their senior housing complex into housing for families. I then said that they should not waste $18,000 on an attempt to tell a man what he can and cannot do with his property- his company- and I was told to ask another question. So I asked “why am I not allowed to justify why I think you are wrong?”, “why wouldn’t you consider the fact that you don’t have the right to tell a man what to do with his property?”, “Who gives you that right?”
Not only did they refuse to answer those questions, I was furthermore told that I was “pontificating” about my belief, (as if they were not implicitly pontificating about theirs by refusing to consider another belief) that I was not asking budget questions (despite the fact that I was asking budget questions, specifically about the legitimacy or lack there of regarding the $18,000 increase for their planning board) and I was also told: “Your political philosophy is of no importance to the budget hearing. It’s just a waste of time”. (Wasn’t their political philosophy of importance to the budget hearing? How come nobody was allowed to question their political philosophy? Why is the political philosophy of the democratically elected politician of the upmost importance, while the political philosophy of those whose money is being stolen by the democratically elected politician is of “no importance” and “a waste of time”? Is that not something similiar to how totalitarian politicians think and speak? Do they not have a terrible record of destruction?
In any event, as I began to respond, and challenge this judgement, I was interrupted, and told: “just ask your question”.
So I then asked “why do you disregard morality in the discussion of a budget?” And they all refused to answer. Then I asked if they believed that principles are irrelevant to compoising a budget.
Then I was told “Son,” (mind you I was no son of this man), “you don’t want to debate ethics with me.”
Although I should have aked “why not?”, I asked “Are you trying to use intimidation as a means of trying to stop me from questioning?”
Despite the fact that this was a question, I was told in response to ask a question. So I asked why they were trying to use intimidation as a means of trying to stop me from questioning. They did not respond to that question either.
Then I reiterated to them that they didn’t have the right to waste $18,000 on an attempt to stop a man from making a change to his business, and that if it was my budget that would never happen. Unfortunately, I raised my voice.
The chief of police didn’t like that I raised my voice, and told me I was being tumultuous and that if I continued to be tumultuous I would be removed from the meeting.
Then, as I apologized for being tumultuous, and said that I didn’t mean to be, the chief of police walked back up to me and said “Listen, just ask your questions”.
In essence, the Robbinsville town council not only refused to answer any questions pertaining to how they justify the money they spend, but they used their chief of police in an attempt to make me afraid of addressing this problem. (The police, in fact, followed me as I left the meeting when it ended which is quite disturbing; that is a blatant abuse of power. ) (And the irony is that I am actually a proud supporter of the police!)
Our elected officials should not only answer every relevenat question we ask them, but it should be their pleasure to so. It would make us more inclined to trust them. But it is clear that many of them don’t really care if we trust them. They want to be left alone, to spend our money, and regulate our lives however they wish, and if any of us question their agendas we are either ignored or subject to intimidation.
Why do we empower and pay people to control our lives and insult us? It certainly does not create a healthy, prosperous, and free society, and yet isn’t that what we want? Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
We can have that healhy, prosperous, and free society, and it begins with requiring transparency from the government. There are four measures we can take to ensure that our elected officials are honest with us:
1) Let everybody know that our elected officials indeed do evade crucial questions, and use intimidation as means to discourage us from asking those crucial questions. More and more people will find this to be unacceptable, and express that directly to our elected officials. It will put a lot of pressure on the government to become more transparent.
2) Keep asking our elected officials every relevant question. Many of them aren’t used to answering important questions- especially on the municipal level, as federal and state officials usually get more exposure. If we keep questioning them they’ll either start answering, or eventually they’ll be rebuked by the press!
3) Recall and/or elect these people out of office. They’re not doing what we hired them to do and they are replaceable.
4) Pass laws that require transparency from our elected officials- laws such as a user friendly budget mandate. If we do this, those who dare to violate such a law would end up being removed from office, and sued or imprisoned.
Every great political improvement requires faith, persistence, and time. The Revolutionary war was not won in a day, or even in a year. The constitution did not come about right after we won our independence. Slavery was not abolished right after the constitution was drafted, nor were women then permitted to vote. There were still restrictions to our freedom of speech in the 1970′s. But these problems were indeed solved, and stand as proof that the prospect of a transparent government is not merely a lofty, impossible dream. We will get the answers to the questions we ask.