When the ‘sausage’ is made in public

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By Julie Delegal

It’s a principle of our representative democracy that we, the people, don’t weigh in on every bit of minutia entailed in making laws and policy.

The oft-quoted maxim, usually attributed to Prussian statesman Otto Von Bismark, posits that lawmaking, like sausage-making, is a process better left unviewed.

But at what points in the “sausage-making” should the public –or its journalists — be on hand to safeguard the integrity of the process? Conversely, at what points do voters hand over power for making decisions to our elected officials?

Two recent court decisions in Florida — one about pension reform, one about alleged gerrymandering — raise questions about the extent of the people’s participation in government.

One of these decisions emerged in a lawsuit brought by the editor of the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville, who objected to the closed-door pension-reform negotiations that were conducted during settlement talks between the city and the Police and Fire Pension Fund.

Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace ruled that trial-settlement negotiations between the fund and the city were subject to Sunshine Laws and should not have been conducted in secret. Chalk one up for “the people’s right to know.”

Waddell’s decision, barring successful appeal, prevents further private negotiations and sends city officials back to the bargaining table to hash out one of the year’s biggest local issues — pension reform. At least one civic leader, however, favors the ability of parties to meet in private to resolve this issue.

Attoney Bill Sheu, chairman of Jacksonville’s Retirement Reform Task Force, told the Times Union that discussing pension deals with the fund in a public forum would not be “productive,” and that the court’s decision effectively killed any hope that the task force might broker a solution.

The larger question of whether the city may negotiate with the fund or must negotiate directly with the police and fire unions has not yet been resolved.  The unions and the fund have an agency contract and its legality is being questioned.

A few weeks prior, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that documents produced by lawmakers during the 2012 redistricting process are public records and that lawmakers are not exempt from testifying about them. While legislative privilege exempts some documents and discussions from review, it is not an absolute right, the court said.

Times Union reporter Matt Dixon reported the following week, however, that an unknown number of documents relating to the redistricting process was destroyed by lawmakers, even though the law requires that some documents be maintained if litigation is likely. Erase a chalk-mark for the democratic value of transparency in government.

The lawsuit over redistricting was brought by the Florida League of Women Voters and a coalition of other advocacy organizations, who say that the maps were drawn in violation of the Fair Districts Amendment. Florida voters adopted the amendment in 2010.

The plaintiffs contend that Republicans drew the maps to favor GOP candidates, violating the state constitution.

At the heart of both these cases are questions about the people’s role in the decision-making process. Are we to be allowed to watch every step of sausage-making, or are we OK allowing the butchers to do some of it behind closed doors?  Did the media drop the ball in not pushing for more transparency during redistricting?

The answers turn on the nature of the political decisions being made, and the ability of the people to meaningfully voice their acceptance or rejection of those decisions. Voting gives the people the opportunity to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the elected officials’ appointees (e.g. on pension fund boards) and contract practices, as well.

In the case of the press versus the Police and Fire Pension fund, taxpayers have a lot at stake. The people deserve clear reporting on the issue as it winds its way through court.

In the end, however, if citizens don’t like what the city and the Fund, or the city and the unions, decide, they can express their dislike at the ballot box.

But what if it turns out that most Floridians disapprove of how lawmakers redrew the maps? How can we “throw the bums out” if the “bums” have gerrymandered the districts to guarantee their re-election?

With redistricting, we’re not just talking about “sausage-making,” we’re talking about the entire “sausage factory.” The electoral maps determine the very apparatus by which the people exercise their rights and a higher level of judicial scrutiny must prevail.

We can be comfortable with routine sausage-making only if we know that we have the ability to vote out the sausage-makers. If it’s true what the League of Women Voters and the coalition of voter organizations are saying in court, though, our most fundamental democratic right has been abridged.

Julie Delegal is a lifelong Floridian and a graduate of the University of Florida. Since 2009, she has been a contributing writer for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly news magazine. Find Julie on Facebook, and on Twitter @julieinjax.