“The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the only legitimate object of good government.”
— Thomas Jefferson, 1809
“Good government is practically applying the principles which make a man a good citizen.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 1902
“We are trying to resolve this behind closed doors cause that is good government.”
— Jackie Clarkson, 2013
How does that old Sesame Street tune go? “One of these things is not like the others…”
Councilmember Clarkson’s above quote (cited via Twitter by Karen Gadbois of The Lens) comes from a curious episode that occurred this week. A City Council hearing had been scheduled for Thursday to discuss a new system to oversee New Orleans Police detail work. As everyone probably already knows, the consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department requires a complete revamping of paid police details, also known as secondary employment or, as the feds dubbed it, the “aorta of corruption.”
However, the scheduled hearing never took place. Instead, the meeting was “postponed.” In lieu of the meeting, another, informal meeting was held Wednesday night between NOPD representatives, council members, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin and “others.” The Times-Picayune, understated as ever, described the details of the meeting as being “sketchy.” Thus, instead of an open, scheduled council meeting, we were treated to a clandestine affair that probably took place in a smoke-filled room.
This type of bait-and-switch is usually not the type of thing that councilmembers are chomping at the bit to comment on. Thankfully, Ms. Clarkson is never one to allow something as mundane as political discretion to stem her flow of her ongoing cascade of verbal diarrhea.
The phrase “good government” has a long and storied history in this country, and perhaps its true meaning has become a bit of a Rorschach test. I’m sure the Council thought that allowing everybody to hash matters out in an environment sans media and the hoi polloi would facilitate a resolution to the paid detail controversy. I’m sure there were fewer guarded words and a lot more thinking out loud. Certainly, nobody was scared to say, “this may sound crazy, but…”
Thus, I’m sure Clarkson was channeling the combined sense of the council when she described a last-minute, closed-door meeting as “good government.” Still, the notion that backroom deals are “good government” goes so far beyond the popular conception the phrase that Clarkson’s quote sounds like a put-on. It would make George W. Bush wince and astound Dan Quayle.
This is about more than just misrepresenting the concept of “good government.” With respect to issues that bear closely to major, proven constitutional violations by a law enforcement agency, the citizens of New Orleans have an interest in knowing what government stakeholders have to say. As for myself, I don’t want them “speaking freely” behind closed doors. Seriously, what was going on there that couldn’t be handled in view of the public? Was it just a few off-color jokes to break the ice, or something more nefarious? We don’t know because they didn’t want you to know.
These were your public officials negotiating a matter that your country’s Department of Justice have attributed to widespread violations of your constitutional rights. And they didn’t even have the decency to do it in the open. And worst of all, Jackie Clarkson had the temerity to talk down to you in Orwellian newspeak, calling this disgusting display “good government.”
You know, in the old days of urban machine politics, there were those who derided “good government” types, derisively called “goo-goos,” as just wanting to destroy the ascendency of minority voting blocks. The perception was that these whiter, richer types only wanted less corruption and more transparency to break the power of the political machines, machines that actually managed to engage the lower classes and secure their interests.
The current City Council is as white and privileged as ever. Hell, Clarkson could be the mascot of city government these days. There’s no claim, tacit or otherwise, that we need closed-door meetings to prevent corruption or otherwise promote the public good through clean, open, and representative government. Her phrasing doesn’t merely deprive “good government” of a precise meaning, it deprives it of all meaning.
We’re all rightfully glad to be freed of the corruption of the Jeffersons and other prominent political machines. However, episodes like this make me wonder if we’ve really adopted clean, good government, or we’re just allowing another class of politicians to pretend to engage us while simultaneously using every trick in the book to abuse, deride and exclude us. I do know that my intelligence feels no less disrespected by the likes of Landrieu and Clarkson as from those proven corrupt.
Maybe I am just doom and gloom. Maybe we have turned a corner, and the corruption of old is behind us. Maybe the current debate over compliance with the federal consent decree is “good government” and I just don’t see it.
But I don’t buy that. Do you?
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.