By J. Patrick Brown and Mary Connaughton. This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Herald on Oct. 30, 2014.
As election day fast approaches, the fever pitch of coverage is a not-so-gentle reminder that it is our civic duty to learn as much as possible about the issues and the candidates, so that when we pull that lever on Nov. 4 we know that we made an informed decision.
But the voting booth curtain swings both ways.
Just as we are expected to read cover to cover the little red magazine that Secretary of State Bill Galvin mailed us, those seeking office — as well as those currently occupying it — must answer the questions the electorate poses to them. “What’s your angle?” being first and foremost. Transparency is the most fundamental tool a democracy has to ensure that its stewards have the public interest at heart, rather than their own self interest.
Which makes Massachusetts’ abysmal track record of disclosure, and its punitive attitude toward those who seek it, shameful.
Statements of Financial Interest, or SFIs for short, are a cornerstone of political ethics: All state and county officials, as well as political candidates, are required to annually disclose their private business associations and other financial interests. The reasoning behind mandating the disclosures is straightforward anti-cronyism. For example, if a candidate owns a sanitation company and is seeking an office that involves awarding sanitation contracts, voters should be aware of it. There’s no good reason to keep that information secret … unless you happen to be the office seeker who owns a sanitation company.
Most states agree and, therefore, post this information on their websites. Massachusetts, unlike luminaries of graft-free government like Louisiana and New Jersey, does not, counting itself among the minority of states that require the requestor to fill out and submit a written form before handing over public information on a public figure, a time-consuming process that many people just plain give up on.
But Massachusetts doesn’t even stop there.
SFI seekers in Massachusetts not only need to fill out the form, but that form requires you to include a copy of your driver’s license. The requestor’s name is then sent to the subject of the SFI, giving him or her a heads-up about your interest.
You may be curious about what interests Charlie Baker, Martha Coakley or your state representative candidate might have outside of your interests, but are you curious enough to compromise your own privacy? That you’re even faced with having to make that choice is a deterrent to fully informed decision-making in the voting booth.
Wouldn’t it better serve the public interest to learn about candidates quickly and through the relative anonymity of your laptop at the kitchen table?
This implicit “tit for tat” disclosure threat is a gross violation of the public trust — not to mention sunshine laws — and is without precedent in local, state or federal public records law.
Before we elect the people who will lead Massachusetts in the coming years, we should do so with eyes wide open to all of the angles.
J. Patrick Brown is the?editor of Muckrock.com, a public records submission service, and Mary Connaughton is director of finance and administration at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.