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Carr on CPS: Lack of gov't transparency a path to tyranny

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Carr on CPS: Lack of gov't transparency a path to tyranny

  • Travis S./Flickr

When I was a kid, my mother had a very simple philosophy for settling disputes about department store purchases: go right to the top. Because her demands were always reasonable, and because department store managers were motivated by the desire to keep good customers, her system worked. It's a lesson I never forgot.

Journalists deal with a lot of "store managers" in the form of people in authority. In this analogy the "cashiers" are the managers' public relations gatekeepers. PR staffs come in all stripes and flavors. At one end of the spectrum are professionals who genuinely believe that the best way to do their jobs is to provide open, honest and timely information to the public, to the fullest extent possible. Those at the other end have a far different philosophy.

It's a sad fact that some public information officials have the same relation to public information that fire department officials have to a fire.

Late last year, the Tucson TV newsroom of which I was director was investigating a series of meltdowns at Child Protective Services. Our newsroom's relationship with the CPS PR staff had its ups and downs, but was often adversarial. Further, the official answers we got were – to put it mildly – not always in close alignment with what we were hearing from the common everyday people affected by CPS's actions.

Finally, after pointed queries and even an official public records request failed to answer our questions, we decided that we needed to speak to the top guy. That would be DES chief Clarence Carter – a name that's been in the news a lot lately. Our first several requests to schedule an interview failed to elicit a response of any kind.

After many days of trying, a PR person was finally moved to send us this response: "Director Carter believes the Division of Children, Youth and Families is well-equipped to handle your requests, which is how we have been proceeding." In other words, Director Carter would not be making himself available to face our questions. Ever. And that is precisely how it worked out.

With this level of public accountability, it should come as no surprise to anyone – Gov. Jan Brewer included – that CPS has continued to spiral into a black hole. Now, a year later, we learn that some 6,500 abuse cases were never investigated at all.

Well, that's one way to reduce your case load.

On Monday the governor named a panel with orders to look deeply into CPS, find out what's wrong, and give her a report.

Governor, here's your report: CPS is an incredibly powerful but notoriously secretive, unresponsive, and opaque bureaucracy. Of course it's broken. For governmental agencies, functionality rises in direct proportion to transparency. CPS is about as opaque as they come. It's great that you're investigating now. But the time to fight a house fire is at the first whiff of smoke, not when the flames are towering into the night and lighting up the landscape for miles around.

Returning to the department store analogy, imagine how one might feel if, after asking to see the manager, the cashier were to tell you, "The manager has complete faith in the cashiers, and doesn't feel the need to talk to customers. So you'll have to deal with me. And I'm telling you to take a hike." The customer would probably have to take the hike, but likely would never return to that store, except maybe to picket it.

In our democracy, we are all customers of government. Oh, to be sure, we don't get to decide whether to give up our cash – we pay our taxes, like it or not. But still, we don't have a king, queen or dictator. The voters are the collective sovereign of our country, and public servants are supposed to be just that – servants, not the semantic equivalent of public masters.

But not all of them see it that way. Our newsroom once ran into an elected official who, when asked why the board of which he was president had just decided to take a certain controversial action, suggested that it wasn't his job to inform the public.

"You're here covering the meeting," he said, dismissing our question. "You tell them what's going on."

Of course, the board's stonewalling had made that task impossible for the moment. But we accepted the challenge, and after several weeks of investigating, we got the answers. In the next election, the voters ran that public official out of office. Democracy had spoken.

It remains to be seen what the democratic process will have to say about CPS. With any public agency, at the first whiff of unresponsiveness – the smoke of the fire, if you will – the public should be concerned. When questions get evasive answers, the public should be angry. And when public officials stonewall in the face of serious issues, the public should fly into a towering rage. Public outrage over CPS has been lacking for the past few months. And here we are.

The situation is not acceptable. So we shouldn't accept it. But we also have to realize that we, the voters, are ultimately responsible for what happens, through the choices we make in our elected leaders, and the feedback that we give them on an ongoing basis. CPS's problems won't be solved by firing a few people. It has resource issues that won't go away with a change of regime. We have to stare that issue in the face and deal with it.

To the governor, I'd say: bravo that you're investigating. And it was gratifying to hear you suggest publicly that CPS might be "hiding or not disclosing" information. But you need to get better at smelling smoke. There was plenty of that with CPS long before flames started shooting out the windows. You should set a tone for your administration requiring transparency – and then monitor to make sure your officials comply. I just read a news report that said you're standing behind Clarence Carter. But a glance at the video from your most recent press conference shows it's the other way around. Are you holding him accountable, or shielding him? What are you doing to demand that Carter & Co. embrace transparency?

The public is not blameless in this, either. To you I'd say: whenever you hear in a news report that an official or agency has refused to answer questions, you should be on the phone or on social media raising a stink.

And finally, to my fellow journalists: yes, police chases, car wrecks, burglaries, shootings and stabbings are part of the news and we do need to know those things. But for any journalist, the most sacred duty has to be this: pry up some rocks, and bring to light facts that powerful interests want to keep buried.

If any official is stonewalling you, you should get up in his or her face with this one demand: Answer. The. Damned. Question.

And stay in that official's grill until you get the answers. If you stop doing that, our way of life dies. Yes, of course, we have to make allowances for privacy issues, sensitive law enforcement investigations, national security matters, and so on. But for the most part, secrecy multiplied by public and journalistic complacency equals tyranny. The equation really is that simple.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary mistakenly reported that Brewer announced the CPS review panel on Tueday.

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