Editorial

If we can’t watch the watchers, who will?

Posted

Two years before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris as his country’s minister to France. Despite an ocean separating him from framers in Philadelphia, the future president still found ways to communicate with those formulating what would become our great nation — especially concerning the role media should play in a free and open government.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” Jefferson wrote to congressional delegate Edward Carrington in 1787. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

James Madison would essentially codify that belief with the adoption of the First Amendment in 1791, ensuring a free press would play a key role in representing the people by keeping its government in check.

It’s why media presence at places like the White House is so essential — we as a people entrust the leadership of our country to a select group that changes every few years, and we’re not going to confer that trust blindly. The government represents our interests to create and maintain a nation that is vital and strong, while the press represents our interests ensuring our leaders are doing it right.

It’s the entire basis of public records. We all pay taxes in some shape or form, whether it’s property on our homes or income at our jobs or even sales tax on a cup of coffee. Our leaders decide what to do with that money, while the media keep us informed of both the good and the bad.

Yet, sometimes our own laws fail to provide us with the proper oversight over government business.  

Just look at our very own Community Board 8. Right now, they are in the process of hiring a new district manager to replace the outgoing Patricia Manning. And it’s an important job. According to CB8, the district manager “plays many different roles,” including complaint taker, municipal manager, community organizer, mediator, and advocate. They effectively take on all the day-to-day work from the board, which itself only really gets together once a month.

For that, the district manager takes a taxpayer-funded salary of at least $70,000, and helps to manage far more of your dollars through various projects designed to enhance the Riverdale area and beyond.

Yet, we don’t know a single person through official channels who has applied for the position. The board has collected names and resumes, will conduct interviews, and despite the fact the board answers to the people, we won’t hear a single result until the board holds a public vote on the final candidate for the job.

If that sounds rather odd, it should. Not only are we excluded from the selection process, we can’t even go back later and check over the board’s work to ensure they indeed made the right decision to lead CB8. We have no opportunity to check the work of our government, and provide that oversight we expect as Americans.

Bob Freeman, a spokesman for the state’s Committee on Open Government that is supposed to oversee public access to our leadership process, tells us this is all perfectly fine. In fact, he calls it the “Spike Lee principle.” You know, “Do the Right Thing.”

“We have to assume that people in government, by and large, are honest,” Freeman said. “That they do the right thing, and that they serve the public interest to the extent that they possibly can.”

Maybe “Do the Right Thing” is big in Brooklyn, but certainly not in the Bronx. Here we don’t just assume our government does the right thing — we make sure they do the right thing.

We get it. People should be able to apply for the district manager position without being “outed” to their current employers as jobseekers. But is that a compelling enough reason to block the public’s right to know? Especially when it comes to ensuring CB8 chooses the right district manager for the job?

Board chairman Daniel Padernacht is operating completely within the law, at least as far as we can tell, when it comes to refusing to release the candidates for the district manager position. 

It’s not that Mr. Padernacht has to change. The law has to change. If we can’t watch the watchers, then who will?

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