2017-02-23 / Opinion

Transparency and Vigilance


Last week, in a flurry of thinking out loud, President Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media . . . is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” To which someone tweeted back that the phrase “Should be on the website of every journalism school in the country.”

One of the scariest things about fake news is how easily it could become the gateway mindset to other evils, whether civic or social. Everybody has his or her own take on what’s fake and what’s not, and will believe what they want. But fake news, or complacency about it, seems to be setting a precedent. What seems to be more harmful in how we digest our news, however, is when there is no news for us to digest– which is what happens when the concept of transparency, as the foundation of good governance, is overlooked.

Transparency depends on a lot of things, but at its core, it demands vigilance. The vigilance of the press, and the vigilance of citizens. It is the product of honesty, truthfulness, integrity, and– most importantly– respect. Without respect for the people you are dealing with and representing, there is no transparency. There is no good governance.

As a word, or a concept, transparency has become overused to the point that it is in danger of losing its bite. From Washington, D.C. to Washington Square, even in this small town vigilance is of great importance. And it has to start at the grass roots level.

Even in Newport and on Aquidneck Island there are issues, municipal and otherwise, that require transparency but which have yet to register on that meter.

Case in point: a joint Newport and Middletown proposal that had been long discussed internally for installing a field of solar panels was abruptly taken off the table just days before councilors were scheduled to vote on a contract with Competitive Energy Services. In Newport, the item was withdrawn from the Feb. 22 docket and the same matter was continued at the Feb. 21 Middletown Town Council meeting, as Town Administrator Shawn Brown was absent.

In a fact-finding leapfrog through a progression of Google hits made by a few concerned citizens, it was quickly determined that the company was in pending litigation; that the CEO had been named fraudulent in an earlier case; that the contract had not gone out to bid; that there had been no real discussion about it; and that there would be no real energy savings for the town. And while some things seem to come out of the blue, others fade into the woodwork, which also, without due diligence, leave us wondering. What, for example, has happened to Newport's fireboat proposal? In December news was that a decision about the type of boat would be made shortly after the new year. But we have heard nothing yet.

Good examples of transparency also exist. It has taken almost a year for the Bring Your Bag subcommittee to shepherd the campaign to ban plastic bags from a grass roots initiative to a bona fide ordinance. They have been vigilant and they have been respectful; and in the process they have been a model for how to make things happen, and include everyone in the process.

And a medal for vigilance should go to the neighbors of Rogers High School, who nearly two years ago began their successful effort to stop the construction of a utility closet at the cell tower that has been on the grounds of the property since the 1980s. The issue of the tower as a host for cellular service has resurfaced, and the neighbors are once again prepared to hold their ground.

Let’s not let lack of transparency become the new normal.

Return to top