COMMENTARY: This increasing trend toward disregard of the public by government officials is dangerous.
The most glaring example right now is President Donald Trump, who continually rejects legitimate concerns about his business dealings and other ethical questions, and who thinks there’s no problem with firing the FBI director in the middle of an FBI investigation into ties between people close to Trump and Russia.
That level of disregard for public perception, and for laws intended to ensure government officials are serving the public, creates an appearance that Trump isn’t acting in the public’s interest. It reduces confidence and participation in government. At worst, Trump’s actions point to something much more sinister.
There are bad examples at all levels of government.
Gov. Susana Martinez has at times shown a stunning disregard for how her actions affect people. She moved chaotically in 2013 to freeze Medicaid funding for 15 behavioral health organizations and spark investigations into possible fraud. By the time all were cleared of wrongdoing, she had crippled a system on which many fragile New Mexicans depend. Her actions hurt people.
Martinez is doing it again with her veto of all higher education funding. She’s using college students and employees as a weapon in a high-stakes political fight with the Legislature. The standoff is harming our universities and the people they serve.
Then there’s the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners. In spite of receiving campaign donations from a business that would benefit, three commissioners recently voted to allow additional fireworks sales instead of recusing themselves. Four commissioners voted to fire the county manager without explaining their votes. Then this week, the commission opted to not approve funding for a regional bus system. Commissioners didn’t allow input from the dozens of people in attendance or explain that decision.
That elicited shouts of “shame” from the audience. People were told to hold their comments until that agenda item and then weren’t allowed to comment.
At the beginning of that meeting, Commission Chair Isabella Solis asked for respect. If public officials want the respect and trust of the public, they have treat the public with respect and trust.
Which Trump, among others, isn’t doing. The president implemented his February travel ban on certain non-citizens so recklessly that he stranded people and separated families. His actions spread fear and caused chaos.
Public trust of our systems – government, journalism and others – is eroding. Our nation is becoming increasingly oligarchical as the wealthy grab greater control in ways that include spending big to influence elections and dramatically reducing the number of journalists helping inform the public.
As people feel increasingly disenfranchised, many check out, and things worsen. Those who spend dark money can manage elections and systems with precision for their own benefit.
Our systems – including ethics laws, journalism, and rules that allow public participation – are our checks on abuse of power, imperfect though they may be. We can’t give up on those systems. We can’t give up on making our voices heard.
Maybe these officials want to be better. Hopefully they’ll improve.
Then again, maybe this disregard for the public is intentional. If government officials won’t demonstrate that they’re acting in the public’s interest, we should assume they’re not.
It’s on all of us to fight this nonsense. Show up, call, email, speak. We deserve, and we need, government that acts in the public’s interest. If we can’t get there, I fear what’s ahead.