JR Ball: Building trust in Baton Rouge through transparency

    JR Ball

    James Madison, he of fourth president fame, may have been foreshadowing modern-day Baton Rouge in 1832 when he said, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

    We haven’t quite hit the farce or tragedy stages just yet, but anyone spending a scintilla of time watching our Metro Council knows we’re within sniffing distance.

    Adding to the stench of incompetence and cronyism are the recent lunacies that were Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s inaugural year in office, the odyssey of selecting a new (old) zoo location and the sham national search for a semi-qualified airport director. And just to prove the axiom of history’s penchant for repeating, BREC’s new leadership quest, though still in its infancy, is already tacking into the same winds of political and racial controversy as the embarrassment of an airport search.

    Of course, let us not forget the shenanigans that gave us the dedicated Council on Aging tax or the bait-and-switch gerrymandering of the taxing district that made dedicated CATS funding a reality.

    Nothing new here, so what’s the point?

    As I may have previously mentioned, Baton Rouge has a big-time trust problem between those of us who live here and the folks we elect to govern. Sadly, the disdain and contempt many feel for our homegrown politicians and bureaucrats has reached the point where cynicism would be an improvement.

    The result is the devolution of the greater good ideal of a unified city-parish into a loose-knit collection of myopic and self-absorbed hamlets distinguished only by race and economics. For the record, this is not a good thing.

    Scores of reasons are cited for why we’ve become this way, yet the underlying cause of this mayhem is that most regular citizens have no flippin’ idea what the hell is going on with our local government.

    “There’s no more fertile ground for distrust to flourish than the public not having a clue.”

    Which is how Kip Holden can successfully run for mayor 15 years ago on the promise of reducing the $1.2 billion price tag of then-Mayor Bobby Simpson’s proposed federally-mandated sewer system upgrade, only to have the plan quietly morph—post-election—into a multi-billion-dollar total overhaul requiring multiple completion extensions, lots of cash for bond attorneys and engineering firms, and ever-escalating sewer fees that end only when the world does.

    Translation: There’s no more fertile ground for distrust to flourish than the public not having a clue.

    “Government ought to be all outside and no inside,” said Woodrow Wilson, who you might remember as our 28th president and famous for his 14 points of peace following World War I. “Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety.”

    If one accepts the notion of collaboration being a good thing if Baton Rouge is to maximize its abundant economic assets—not to mention ever dreaming of having something approaching a fiscally-efficient government—then establishing a modicum of trust between residents and the government their tax dollars feed must be a pretty massive priority.

    Bluntly put, government transparency is the only way for trust to develop.

    Which is why all of us should be celebrating last week’s launch of Open Checkbook BR, the updated nightly, city-parish government transparency website allowing anyone with internet access to track—to the penny—how each and every department spends our money.

    Even Broome’s harshest critics must concede her administration has done an admirable job of shining some light on public data, through the Open Data BR portal, and now public spending.

    Will transparency guarantee the wise and efficient spending of public dollars? Of course not, but it makes it far easier to hold government accountable for its actions.

    Which brings us to the greatest accomplishment of Broome’s tenure in office—convincing tax-skeptical voters to approve her massive MovEBR roads and infrastructure program.

    No doubt, those on the losing side are complaining many tax-hating opponents chose to ignore the December election date, but whose fault is that? C’mon, are people really suggesting—with a straight face—that this tax proposal caught suburban residents off guard? Seriously?

    The Broome administration—with a massive assist from businessmen Jim Bernhard and Mike Wampold—did a good job making the case for this tax. The burden now shifts to guaranteeing that what ultimately will be more than one billion in sales tax dollars isn’t poorly spent.

    They need to go public with the selection process for every consultant, program manager, bond attorney, engineer and construction firm that will benefit. Who cares who’s donated to which campaign, who’s somebody’s brother or third cousin or the racial makeup of the firm. The only thing that must matter is getting the highest quality work at the most cost-efficient rate.

    Moreover, there needs to be clear prioritization for each project and a legitimate timeline for completion.

    In other words, every decision must be able to withstand public scrutiny.

    Nothing our city-parish government can do in the effort to establish trust with the people it serves is as effective as transparency.

    As former U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan said in 1998, “Secrecy is for losers. It’s time to dismantle government secrecy.”