Monday, April 7, 2008

Public Records and Contempt for Democracy

Gerald Benjamin, Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-New Paltz, offers these thoughts on our post "I've Got a Secret" and the Pataki administration's failure to deliver many of its records to the New York State Archives.

There is more to this story. Almost immediately upon taking office the Pataki administration stopped the near contemporaneous annual publication of the Public Papers of the Governor. Theretofore these have been published annually since the mid-19th Century.

Some argued that this decision, allegedly taken for reasons of budgetary stringency,was of little consequence. Governors, they said, only published materials in these papers that redounded to their personal and political benefit. But documents made available at one time, in one political context, might have very different--and far less flattering--implications in another time, after the entire record of an administration was made and known.

Moreover, the published papers were available in libraries throughout the state, and useful not only for scholars but for initiating students into the study of history, government and politics through the use of original documents.

I know the value of these papers for researchers from personal experience. The public papers of Governors Rockefeller, Carey and Cuomo were absolutely central to books I wrote about the legacies of these three governors.

The electronic manner in which we now so commonly communicate leaves traces that are increasingly ephemeral. Much that is electronic should be saved, and I appreciate the effort of the NYS library to assure that this in fact occurs. But at minimum we must act to assure public access to the written, hard-copy public documents and records created by elected leaders in the course of governance.

These documents are the property of the people of New York. Leaders who fail to realize this, and who seek to alter history by altering these records, or denying access to them, show a fundamental misunderstanding of the need for citizens in a democracy to know about and understand what our state government has done in critical areas of policy and why these actions were taken. These leaders not only diminish our ability to hold them accountable for their actions while in office, but distort the record in a way that makes it harder for us to know our history, and to learn from it.

This treatment of the public's record is a manifestation of both arrogance and, sadly, contempt for democracy.

No comments: