When you’re running for public office, you have to strike a bit of a balance. You want to let voters know where you stand, but you don’t want to make promises you can’t — or won’t — keep.
These things matter because you might just get elected — and then people may well remember those pesky promises you made.
So it was interesting to see just how far Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright were willing to go in order to out-transparent one another Tuesday night at a Burlington Free Press mayoral debate on government transparency. [Independent candidate Wanda Hines canceled at the last minute for personal reasons.]
The dynamic mayoral duo’s message? We won’t ever hide anything from anyone. Especially the press. Not ever. We promise.
The Free Press has, admirably, made government transparency a central focus of their coverage. They assigned veteran reporter Mike Donoghue to a bit of a Freedom of Information Act beat, and they’ve editorialized on the subject ad nauseam. They even won a Society of Professional Journalists award last summer for what the SJP called a “three-year campaign for open government" — and it looks like Vermont candidates and officeholders are getting the message.
So when Weinberger and Wright showed up to the daily's debate Tuesday night, they were armed and ready to pander. After Wright was unable to name more than two of the nine reasons public boards can go into executive session, Weinberger piped up like an eager schoolboy who’d done all the homework teacher assigned.
“I was hoping I was going to get to fill in for Kurt after— I’ve got the nine reasons right here!” he giddily proclaimed.
After a quick lightning round, Freeps editors Mike Townsend, Mike Killian, Aki Soga and reporter Candy Page got down to brass tacks and asked a series of questions based on hypothetical scenarios. It was kind of like watching a really awkward job interview.
They were questions like:
- If a city employee sent “inappropriate” messages from their city e-mail account, does the Freeps — er, the public — have a right to see them?
- City lawyers say you have a legal justification for closing a public meeting and going into executive session. What’s your next step?
- If you find that someone in your administration is, say, embezzling public money, how do you decide how much to share with the Freeps — er, the public — and when?
In answer after answer, Wright-Berger promised that, yes, yes they would be so very, very transparent.
And then this exchange happened:
Candy Page: “You’re the mayor—“
Kurt Wright: “I like it so far!”
Page: “You’re the mayor. You get a memo from your lawyer that warns you that there are going to be some serious legal consequences to a policy decision that you’ve made, unless you reverse that decision. Then the Free Press asks you for those e-mails from your lawyer. Are you going to give them to us— to the public?”
Wright: “Give it to you guys? Come on, Candy!”
Page: “We’re here for the public good!”
Wright: “Avoid that at all cost! No, don’t print that.”
Wright: [Awkwardly] LOL
Wright: “It’s a joke. I’m kidding. I don’t have a— obviously, again, if you make a mistake, you gotta be up front and admit to it. And I don’t care if somebody— sure, I would release them. Absolutely.”
Page: “Even though you could legally claim attorney-client privilege, you would not?”
Wright: “As long as releasing them doesn’t endanger the city in some other way. If we can release them and it’s about attorney-client privilege, I don’t care if the press knows that I did something wrong. Because, again, it goes back to you gotta tell the public the truth — the good, the bad and the ugly. If we make a mistake and it was my responsibility — or whoever’s responsibility it was — but let’s say it’s mine. You gotta back things up and say, okay, I’ve made a policy decision that was wrong. The attorneys have shown me it’s wrong. I’d actually, you know what, I’d actually go out and tell the press about it first!”
Page: “Miro, what’s your answer to that question?”
Weinberger: “…Yeah, I don’t think it’s good enough and it’s probably not even allowed under the 260 exemptions. I’m not an attorney, but I don’t think just not turning them over because it’s going to be embarrassing is a sufficient reason to withhold them. I do think it’s not a good local strategy either. The cover-up is often worse than the crime. To come clean would make sense.”
And then Page nailed it.
Page: “But how do you avoid going into that defensive crouch that I, over 30 years, have seen virtually every administration at the state and local level go into. I mean, you’re on the firing line every day and — isn’t it hard to keep — to let go of something that technically, I think, you would not have to release, Miro, because a communication from your lawyer would be privileged?”
Weinberger: “I do think it is a crouch that many administrations fall into at all levels. I agree with that observation… It’s something I will resist and I think needs to be resisted because we’ve all seen the results of falling prey to it.”
Wright: “Candy, we need to learn the lessons of the things that you just mentioned… It is better to admit the mistake. It is better to look terrible — it’s better to come out and say, ‘hey, I screwed this up’ and move on.”
That was the sound of the next mayor of Burlington (unless Hines wins) waiving attorney-client privilege, inviting the news media into his inner sanctum and losing any chance of getting decent legal advice.
It was a savvy move by the Freeps, because you can be sure that, as Page rightly pointed out, as soon as the next mayor is sworn in, he or she will assume the defensive crouch. And then something bad will happen and, suddenly, government transparency will seem a little less important than damage control.
And that’s when the Freeps will go to the filing cabinet and pull out its debate transcripts.