What Public Officials Give Up: The Privacy of Thought

What Public Officials Give Up: The Privacy of Thought

Why do we do what we do?

It’s a question good leaders must ask themselves from time to time, rather than assuming all our intentions are noble. Because even good leaders are, alas, human.

But it is one thing for a leader to discover his/her own “dark side” in private, with a trusted confidant, in the confessional, or in therapy. It is quite another to be compelled to confess one’s less noble impulses on the public record.

So I have sympathy for the sentiment reportedly expressed recently by one of Florida’s state senators. The occasion was the debate over a bill written in response to litigation over redistricting. The senator was quoted as saying, “[w]e should all be responsible as elected officials but there is a sacred space and that sacred space is our mental impressions about what we do as legislators.”

There is, however, a long-standing tradition in this state that denies elected officials such a “sacred space.”

In 1969, in Times Publishing Company, etc., v. Williams (222 So. 2d 470), the District Court of Appeals for the Second District, in reference to the intent of the state’s public meetings laws, declared that “[e]very thought, as well as every affirmative act, of a public official as it relates to and is within the scope of his official duties, is a matter of public concern; and it is the entire decision-making process that the legislature intended to affect by the enactment of the statute before us. This act is a declaration of public policy, the frustration of which constitutes irreparable injury to the public interest.”

“Every thought, as well as every affirmative act.” No sacred space there.

Of course, the language of this decision, which continues to guide interpretation today, is a bit unrealistic. Human beings are not capable of remembering every thought they have had about complex issues.

What sense can we make of this sweeping claim, then? How can “thought, as well as every affirmative act” be made accessible to the public?

Only by expecting and, at times, demanding that public officials explain themselves. Under certain circumstances, that demand may be to explain themselves under oath.

Because intentions matter. The intentional use of political power to further a personal or collective interest distinct from the public interest matters.

This is not to open all public officials at all times to an inquisition about their thoughts. More than mere speculation is needed for the court to entertain interrogation of local elected officials over a zoning decision or state legislators over a district map. Smoke needs to be rising from somewhere before the courts authorize probing the minds of elected officials.

The best means of avoiding such interrogations is not to create smoke. Our decisions should make sense, on their face, in terms of appropriate standards relevant to our decisions.

Those of us who serve in public office have an affirmative duty to avoid, not merely violating the law, but undermining the public trust. Behaving in ways that appear improper are themselves harmful. Upholding the public trust is the sacred obligation of every public servant. Do that, and nothing else will matter.

4 Responses to What Public Officials Give Up: The Privacy of Thought

  • Maureen Bremer

    Would you relay this message to the new POTUS, please….

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Perhaps someone will send President Trump the link . . . I don’t think he’s following me on Twitter.

  • S G Jordan

    You are definitive in your speeches and written material. And you are to the point and concise. A super communicator.