Openness cures ills unless government blocks the sunshine

Who loses when supposed leaders don’t get the big picture? We the people, of course.

So, how to explain denying our history, ignoring the First Amendment on public lands and cloaking yet another attempt to dam the free-flowing Gila River?

Gila River Lower Box in the dam project area. Photo © William P. Diven.

Gila River Lower Box in the dam project area. Photo © William P. Diven.

Perhaps the picture emerges by connecting those dots into a collision of ignorance, arrogance and ineptitude. Or maybe these folks know exactly what they are doing. Either way it’s the tip of a scary iceberg.

Consider what’s blown up in the last week or so:

  • The conservative takeover of Colorado’s second-largest school district yielded a plan to devolve advanced-placement history classes to what some call “happy history” by promoting patriotism and downplaying “civil disorder, social strife and disregard for the law.” (See update at the bottom of this post.)
  • The U.S. Forest Service moved a make permanent a directive on photo permits so vaguely worded it could ban news photographers from forests and wilderness areas without a fee and possibly a government handler.
  • The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s “Gila Subcommittee” has been meeting without public notice since 2010 and allegedly making decisions on damming the Gila River without public participation.

On those first two dots, proponents are backpedaling as fast as they can, at least for now. On the third, the political appointees are digging in their heels.

Facing three days of student walkouts over the AP history plan, the Jefferson County, Colo., school board retreated thusly: It was just a proposal from one board member. It was tabled. It’s not final. Texas did it, so it’s OK.

That debacle is part of a national conservative backlash against the College Board rewriting its framework for AP history classes to, it says, promote critical thinking and allow for local topics by avoiding a “breathless race” through U.S. history. Bloggers on the right have their knickers in a twist claiming the Pilgrims and Founding Fathers won’t be taught and the curriculum is “vaguely Marxist.” The Republican National Committee chimed in calling it “radically revisionist.”

Or maybe it’s just honest. The student walkouts were acts of civil disorder, something ingrained in our history. We wouldn’t even be a country if not for those pesky radicals who risked execution back in 1776. And I suppose we could skim slavery as a historical blip, and just skip altogether the Jim Crow era that followed. If advanced-placement students (read young adults) can’t handle the truth, who can?

Am I proud my ancestors persecuted witches in Salem or helped drive Native Americans out of Pennsylvania? Not particularly. Am I still mad at the South because one of its cannoneers blew off part of my great-granddaddy’s foot at Chickamauga? Not at all. History is who we are and how we got here. So suck it up.

There is a reason courts require witnesses to tell “the truth, the whole truth.” To tell half the truth is to tell a lie of omission. And in this tale of two countries, the whole truth is not summed up in the triumphs of the first country any more than in the sins of the second. — Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., “Students fight assault on history,” Miami Herald, Sept. 27, 2014.

The Forest Service skidded into clarification mode extending by a month taking comment on rules purported to cover commercial photography and movie productions with a loose exemption for breaking news. “We take your First Amendment rights seriously,” USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said in a news release. “We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive.”

You can bet USFS will be hearing from the National Press Photographers Association:

Not only does requiring a permit for ordinary newsgathering create a chilling effect on freedom of speech and of the press but granting the Service the ability to deny such a permit in the case of a journalist or news organization would, we believe, create an unconstitutional prior restraint on those newsgathering activities. — National Press Photographers, Advocacy blog, Sept. 24, 2014. (Disclosure: I’m an NPPA member.)

And then there’s the latest in decades of attempts to dam the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico as the clock ticks toward a $128 million federal money pot evaporating at the end of the year. Even with that, state taxpayers would be on the hook from another $200+ million. Norm Gaume, a former director of the state’s Interstate Stream Commission and a critic of the project, formally served notice last week alleging meetings of the ISC Gila Subcommittee routinely violated the Open Meetings Act. The ISC now has 15 days to respond formally before Gaume can go to court, if that’s his intent.

Informally comments from the commission’s lawyer denigrate Gaume’s action as “nothing more than a show to cast aspersions” and says the subcommittee is exempt from the meetings law because its role is only advisory. Gaume’s lawyer says the violations are clear and numerous, so we’ll see how this plays out.

(As an aside, when did lawyers on the public payroll become political spokespeople instead of just legal advocates?)

Regardless of which side wins this scuffle, it seems every aspect of an expensive and environmentally damaging dam and water project altering forever a scenic and beloved river should play out in the public sunshine. Public opposition helped kill similar schemes in the past, so maybe that’s why the subcommittee meets in the dark.

The ISC director and most or all of the nine men who make up the commission are political appointees of Gov. Susana Martinez, whose first campaign targeted the perceived corruption of the previous administration. “We must operate state government in an open and transparent manner,” she says on her official website. “As public servants, we are accountable to New Mexicans and they should know exactly what their government is doing on their behalf.” Perhaps she could send that link to her Gila Subcommittee.


Update Nov. 4, 2015: In yesterday’s election, the three conservative members of the Jefferson County school board who tried to suck the intellectual honesty out of advanced-placement U.S. history were booted from office. This was not a regular contest of candidates but a recall election with all three being recalled by margins approaching 2-1. More from the Denver Post>>

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