Musings on Transparency, Accountability, and the Public Benefit of Conferences

This week, after reading of my attendance at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Retreat in the local media, a constituent sent me a quote of mine from 1998:

“It’s not a novelistic imagery…When some of the big projects done recently have been criticized, it’s usually been a last-minute kamikaze effort…We don’t have a conspiracy world here. But there is a comfort level among certain people who know each other—a well-connected network of people in the city whose names keep coming up again and again. We have a culture of commonly accepted principles of how the city should go.”

I think in doing so he may have been suggesting that since I did attend the Retreat this year that was evidence that my position in 1998 has changed.  Yet, I still agree with my statement from 1998.

Though in an article about the Chamber Retreat in 1998, my statement here wasn’t particularly targeted to my observations about interactions at conferences.  The statement was generally about the interactions that decision-makers have with powerful people, whether on the phone, in a meeting, or by a chance exchange in the street.

As it relates to this year’s Chamber Conference, I don’t know how many lobbyists there were at the event, but there were probably a number of them. Only one lobbyist with business before the Council approached me. That lobbyist was from Comcast.  She asked me if I had withdrawn my resolution raising concerns about possible merger of Comcast. I gave her the news that I was going forward with it.   She also mentioned that the City’s contract with Comcast was the best in the state. My response was that it still not wasn’t good enough and we parted ways, agreeing to disagree.

It’s reasonable to ask what contacts with lobbyists Councilmembers have. It’s a reasonable question not just as it relates to contacts at a conference. Transparency is important.  This is the very reason that I’ve led the Council to promote laws, structures, and systems to increase transparency about with whom Councilmember’s meet. Two examples are:

  1. The lobbyist registration law (see link),
  2. The practice of posting online the Council logs documenting the names of individuals that meet with Councilmembers.

Perhaps there also needs to be consideration of whether additional practices and/or policies related to accountability and transparency need to be instituted when public funds are used to send elected officials to conferences. For instance, public disclosure of the attendance roster by the event sponsors could be made a precondition of public officials attending.

I not only believe that the issue of transparency is important, but whether there is a public benefit when elected officials attend conferences is a separate and worthy issue to discuss.   One question in making that determination might be:  Was the content one-sided?

An example from the Chamber Retreat that comes to mind was the topic on the agenda about “megatrends.”  A megatrend is a large, social, economic, political, environmental or technological change that influences a wide range of activities, processes and perceptions, both in government and in society, possibly for decades.   I find that the value of conferences is not only reflected by the prepared content of the presentations, but also by the responses of the attendees in the discussion of the presentation.  In this case, the presenter did not identify rising income disparity as a megatrend.   In response, a couple of panelists brought up the fact that the identification of income inequality was missing, with one person stating that though she understood that much of the audience would not agree, she felt that there was a need for more taxes do address the income wealth gap.
 

In closing, the issues of transparency, accountability, and public value are each at the heart of good government and grappling with them is essential to its life blood.

© 1995-2016 City of Seattle