Monday, June 24, 2024

We were somewhere around Little Rock, on the edge of the Delta, when the pain of the election began to take hold.

The late, great Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.”

Even if he wasn’t talking specifically about the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, his words are nonetheless on point. The AP explains:

Secretary of State Mark Martin’s office denied a former employee’s claims Monday that top officials were skirting the state’s public records law, the latest controversy that Martin has faced over the management of his office since he was sworn in three months ago.

Martin, a Republican, has already faced criticism over spending by his office for legislative redistricting and on an outside consultant’s contract. Now, a former executive assistant says she resigned over concerns that his office wasn’t following the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.


“I was told to delete a certain email (which I did not) I was told that the email would be shredded if it fell into the scope of the FOIA request,” [Teresa] Belew wrote.

She later talked with Deputy Secretary of State A.J. Kelly, who Belew said told her “not to worry because the most important thing was to delay delivery of the FOIA until after budgets were approved.”

Stewart denied that she or anyone else in the office told Belew to delete or shred any emails that were part of the Times’ request.

Martin’s other faux pas include hiring the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics for $54,500 to perform “values-based strategic planning,” purchasing a new car (despite having a 20+ vehicle fleet at his disposal) for redistricting or “voter education” or whatever today’s excuse is, and spending an inordinate amount of the avilable redistricting funds before the Governor called him out on it. Of course, these are only faux pas because people found out about them, not because Martin thinks he was doing anything wrong. If he had been able to keep these hidden, through whatever means, Martin would have escaped any criticism. People can’t complain about what they don’t know, right?

Combating this mindset is, of course, the logic behind creating a public, searchable, online “checkbook.” As one legislator wrote way back in 2009:

By placing the details of every government purchase and contract online where citizens can easily review them, the government will be much more accountable. Why? First, hundreds or thousands of citizens’ eyes will pore over the newly transparent data, discovering instances of previously unnoticed waste, fraud, and abuse. As a result, one can expect that these constituents will hold their elected representatives accountable and demand action. Second, once government officials become aware of the heightened scrutiny created by a transparency Web site, they will have an increased incentive to be more careful, frugal, and to think twice before making questionable expenditures.

One does not have to be a cynic to recognize that a proposal to throw light on how politicians spend tax dollars—and therefore make it easier for citizens to hold them accountable—might not be a very popular idea among politicians. Of course, it is virtually impossible to oppose a transparency measure on the grounds that one prefers more government secrecy and less citizen scrutiny.

That same legislator also said in 2009, that, “[a]s a companion to our new annual session, Arkansas desperately needs a gateway for obtaining information and key documents about how the State of Arkansas spends tax dollars.”

Anyone who has read enough BHR to know my fascination with irony can probably guess that these statements were made by then-Representative Mark Martin. (You can find the full posts here and here.) I wonder if he still feels so strongly about increasing transparency today. I kind of doubt it. Honestly, though, I don’t think he actually believed what he was writing even at the time he was writing it; after all, why would someone who was suckling from the State’s teat to the extent Martin was want Joe Public to be able to see that? Did he think that people would just fail to notice that he was claiming to be two places at the same time, taking a per diem for each location?

No, I imagine that Martin saw an opportunity to pretend like he was in favor of transparency, to praise the possible benefits of a searchable database while secretly hoping (assuming?) that it would never come to be. Or, at the very least, that it would not exist while he was in office. It’s the best of both worlds there, being pro-transparency while benefiting greatly from the lack of transparency.

Which brings us back to my first question: does Mark Martin still feel so strongly about increasing transparency? While I suppose it makes sense on a self-preservation level for Martin to attempt to throw up some kind of smokescreen to hide his questionable actions, attempting to circumvent the FOIA requirements does not exactly suggest that he wants to be publicly accountable for what he is doing. It does suggest, however, that Martin assumed he could basically do whatever he wanted, the petty king of his own little fiefdom, which would be in keeping with pretty much everything we learned about Martin during the campaign last fall.

Sadly, voters did not pay attention then, choosing to vote against the guy who actually had experience cleaning up a troubled office and running elections and doing most of the things a Secretary of State should do, simply because he was from the “wrong” party. Had O’Brien won, I have no doubt that we would not have seen a story about how his office needed help in figuring out how to make decisions. Instead, we got the Republican with the famous name, who admittedly had no experience that would prepare him for the job, but who had a track-record of sucking money from the state.

Not surprisingly, we wound up with a Secretary of State who is now paying someone else to help him figure out how to do his job, and he is continuing to be something far less than fiscally restrained. I guess you really do get what you pay for, for better or worse, ’til death or term limits do us part.

Looking back at Martin’s record, all of which was brought to light before the election, the predictability of everything that has happened since he took office is amazing. It also makes me feel like being informed just results in Quixotic failures more often than not. So why bother? Well, to again quote the late Doctor

I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I felt that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between those two poles — a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other — that kept me going.

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