Common sense tells us that government is more responsive and ethical when its actions are open to public scrutiny. As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Woodrow Wilson, who appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court, wrote about the need to shed light on the government. He said, “Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere.”
As far back as the 1890s several states were already experimenting with disclosure rules to combat corruption in campaign finance. This is not a new conversation. Modern times change the delivery, but history provides us with perspective, and sometimes even inspiration.
The digital age allows more opportunities to let the sun in than ever before. We are living in unique times where technology creates new, exciting opportunities to widen access between the public and government. New tools such as imaging, scanning, the Internet, mass storage capacity and millions of hand-held devices have the potential to give people better insight into governmental decision-making, budgeting and spending.
This progress allows for two-way communication. For example, through the county Web site, individuals can send an e-mail with concerns or comments on a particular issue. The success of our political system requires that citizens be involved.
Human nature is such that elected officials who see no public interest in their activities are more likely to stray from the core interests of their constituents. At its worst, circumstances where elected officials face an apathetic public provide a breeding ground for corruption and abuse. Citizens need to care about how we govern, understand how government works and be aware of the issues we are addressing. They also need the tools to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.
Since taking office, I have advocated for certain changes geared toward a more transparent, accessible government:
- In 2009, the Board of Chosen Freeholders supplemented online meeting agendas with the resolutions that were up for consideration by the board. This allowed the public to see more than just titles of these items.
- Also in 2009, Monmouth County embraced social media and developed Facebook and Twitter sites.
- In 2010, Monmouth County also began posting its proposed budget online. In the past it was posted only after it had been adopted.
- Also in 2010, at my request and at little expense to the taxpayers, our Clerk of the Board moved from an antiquated tape system of recording minutes to digital recording technology. I would like to say this brought us into the 21st century, but it is more accurate to say it brought us out of the 1980s. This simple improvement has now allowed staff to more accurately transcribe the minutes, freed up space that had previously been used to store cassette tapes and gave the freeholders and staff immediate access to the important discussions that take place.
- I am proud that as a result of moving to digital recordings of freeholder meetings, full audio of regular and workshop meetings are now available on the county Web site, www.visitmonmouth.com. This allows residents who are unable to attend meetings to hear the discussions that took place and stay more engaged in issues that are relevant to their lives.
The benefits of this technology go beyond convenience. We find ourselves in troubled times where citizens and the governments that serve them confront dire financial challenges. Municipal, county and state governments must be held to the highest standards of efficiency and productivity. The best means of reaching that goal is to pull back the curtain. In addition to posting meeting minutes and the budget we should post expenditures and employment and other contracts.
Despite these technological advances, I recommend that residents attend the meetings. They are generally held at the Hall of Records, 1 East Main St. in Freehold, with workshops at 2 p.m. and regular meetings at 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of each month. There are exceptions when the board takes the meetings on the road. A full and detailed schedule of meetings, as well as a wealth of other information, can be found on the county Web site.
Moving forward in this fashion would be a marked departure from the way many of our local public bodies have approached accessibility. But as technology advances excuses for failing to make this type of information available will evaporate.
Public officials need to be imaginative and efficient in organizing and making these documents available to the public. They should be encouraged in the knowledge that their efforts to promote government transparency fulfill the intent of those who founded our great country and ensures that the power entrusted to elected officials will not be abused.
* Amy A. Mallet is a Monmouth County freeholder.