History has a way of repeating itself. It was not long ago that I found members of Fredericton City Council and their employees engaged in some rather shady activities; specifically, suppressing civil rights, accusing people of violating fictional by-law provisions, unlawfully destroying property, and lying about the whole affair to the public. When asking them nicely to come clean didn’t work, I sued them and thereby forced them to come clean about what they had done.
Soon thereafter, I found City employees once again doing something that they really shouldn’t—trying to hide a document that the public has a right to see, pursuant to the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. My response was the same as last time. I asked them nicely to do the right thing and release the document, and when they told me to go away, I referred the matter to a judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench. Days after a hearing date was set, the City gave in and released it. The document in question is a fire department strategic plan from 2002, known informally as the “Powell Report,” and you can now download the Powell Report from my site or the Fredericton Fire Department site.
I have given a brief overview of the issue above. For those who would like to read the whole story, I have linked to five articles from the local newspaper which did an admirable job of recounting it with full context:
- “City heading to court over study.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, N.B] 26 Apr 2014: A.1.
- “The lost may be found: Editorial.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, N.B] 29 Apr 2014: C.2.
- “City released report only after legal threat, man says.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, N.B] 28 May 2014: A.5.
- “Dust-covered 2002 report called for Gibson Street fire station.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, N.B] 29 May 2014: A.1.
- “The lost is found: Editorial.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, N.B] 29 May 2014: C.6.
Since the Daily Gleaner has saved me the trouble of recounting the whole history of this issue, I will focus on its significance in the broader context of a free and democratic society.
Democratic governments are meant to serve the will of the people and empower citizens to make a positive difference for their society. After all, we can accomplish much more by working together than we can individually, so it makes sense to form a government that pools our resources and works for the greater good. One of the ramifications of this idea is that, in order for a government to be democratic, the common people must ultimately be in charge. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.1” Those who hold political office ought to see themselves as humble servants of the public, not as quasi-dictators who make pronouncements from on high as to how the government is going to be run. That is all well and good in theory, but is this how our politicians behave in practice?
Somewhere along the line, the popular conception of government has shifted from that of an open and transparent institution that serves and empowers the common people to that of a monolithic and secretive institution that rules and disempowers them. We can see this reversal reflected in the frequently adversarial relationship between people and government. The rise of mass protest movements, usually followed by (and often caused by) waves of government-initiated oppression, are obvious examples of this adversarial relationship playing out. Perhaps more subversively, certain cynical attitudes towards government have come to the fore—such as the attitude implicit in the saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.”
The prevailing view seems to be that the government, the local form of which is based in City Hall, is a formidable foe and will always get its way, and thus there is no point in trying to hold it accountable for its actions. It is true that City Hall has certain advantages relative to most opponents; it has legislative power, virtually bottomless pockets to pay lawyers, communications specialists (who generally play the role of spindoctors), and so on. City Hall is far from invulnerable, however, as I’ve shown. In any contest, each side tries to leverage their relative strengths; and while City Hall had all the strengths mentioned, I had facts, law, and tenacity on mine, and those were more than enough.
I think of the government as a lion tamer with nothing but a whip between himself and the lion. The lion tolerates the whip only because it feels that it has no choice—that it is powerless to do anything about its lot in life, and that the tamer will thus dominate it forever. Were the lion to become cognizant of its own strength, it would realize that the sound and fury of the whip is nothing more than a flimsy spectacle, and the tables would turn very quickly indeed.
In principle, we should never have to sue the government to get it to act in the public interest, given that its whole reason for existence is to do just that. In practice, however, legal action is sometimes necessary. We are fortunate to have our legal system, which, among other roles, acts as an important safeguard against a political class with a propensity to act against the public interest.