Editorial: Transparency is a must

Thomas Jefferson said the only thing a man can take beyond this lifetime is his ethics. He also said, “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.” For a democracy to thrive, there are few things more important than transparency and ethics. Without them, there can be no faith or trust in government. Think it’s never been an issue in Southington? Think again.

The town first created the code in 1977, and the Board of Education was found to have acted unethically the following year with its handling of a review and transfer of the high school’s band director. As recently as 2011, a downtown land developer was found to have acted in his own personal interest when he voted for a downtown parking ban as a member of the parking authority. Sure, along the way there have been charges that have been dismissed, but others have stuck.

Conflicts of interest are inevitable in local politics. The board of education is mostly peopled by parents of the students they serve and former teachers, but who else would care enough to run? Zoning boards are made up of local business owners, homeowners, and developers, but who else should be voting on a town’s regulations? Should it surprise us that the council is made up of former and current town employees, local business owners, and Southington residents? Of course not. The nation’s ideal is a government “of” the people, “by” the people, and “for” the people.

The ethics code is designed to make sure that government officials continue to be “for” the people and not just for themselves. Remember, nobody expects elected officials to be without conflicts of interest, they are just asked to disclose them openly and abstain from votes where conflicts exist. Is that too much to ask? No, and Southington’s history shows us that town officials aren’t always transparent on their own.

We applaud the way this issue has been ironed out in a public forum. Other than a little grandstanding on one side and stubbornness on the other, the discussion has been mostly thoughtful and fruitful. We look forward to any new ideas that come out at this final public hearing on Monday, May 8. No stone should be left unturned before the vote.

So far, the committee has listened to the barrage of public comment, deciding to take out “appointed” leaders from the lists of those affected, leaving elected officials and non-union employees as the only ones needing to disclose the conflicts in their home. It proves that public forums work.

Along the way, a few good protests have been levied. The most thoughtful was about what to do with these disclosures once someone leaves office. That conversation needs to continue (and it will) because government should protect the privacy of private citizens once they leave public office.

These changes aren’t exessive. The proposed disclosure statements are watered down versions of those already used at the state and national levels. Since there have only been two or three councilors that have been truly outspoken against these changes, it’s probably fair to say that there won’t be a big shakeup on the council this Election Day as a result of it. We’ll see how it affects other boards, but don’t believe the fear tactics that “nobody will run.” That has never been a problem in Southington politics. We are sure that enough volunteers will step up if the outspoken councilors step down. Maybe Southington will move closer to a rotating leadership if these longtime electors decide not to run again. Is that so bad? We don’t think so.

So, for it or against it, show up at the municipal center to voice your opinion. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

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