Friday, 19 July 2024




These are strange times for people who advocate for open government. On one hand, technological changes appear to make information about government more easily available than ever before. We live in a radically changed media environment, in which news about government misconduct seems to reach our televisions instantaneously. And if we look around the world, we see an extraordinary spread of laws like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Over 70 countries now have FOI laws, most adopted in the last decade.

And yet we seem to be more concerned with government secrecy than ever before. Indeed, some people claim that secrecy today is the worst in decades. How can both of these stories be true?

It might help to recognize that we are in the middle of an intense, global battle over the principle of governmental openness. In the heat of battle, there's a temptation to employ overheated rhetoric. The truth is that the idea of transparency has gained a lot of ground over the last 20 years. This is evident in the spread of FOI laws, and the number of citizens who say that open government is an important value.

Nonetheless, there are serious challenges to openness. One is executive pushback – the determination of political leaders to reverse laws or policies that guarantee openness. As pressure for openness mounts, this countervailing pressure also intensifies. Of course, we've seen a classic case of pushback in United States, where the Bush administration waged a campaign against openness even before the 9/11 attacks. The administration tightened rules governing the Freedom of Information Act and policies on access to presidential records, among other measures.

However, pushback isn't unique to the United States. The British government led by Tony Blair was elected on a promise to introduce a Freedom of Information Act in 1997, but took eight years to put it into force. The new law was in operation for little more than a year when the Blair government announced substantial fee hikes that could gut the law. The Indian government also adopted a Freedom of Information law in 2005, but within months senior officials were pushing for restrictions. A wave of protests – and hunger strikes – deterred Indian leaders from introducing new limits.

Such struggles will continue in the years ahead. Some advocates argue that FOI laws eventually introduce a "culture of openness" in government – but the evidence tends to support a more hardheaded view. As a Canadian politician once said, the struggle over access to information is ultimately a struggle for political power. A well-organized community of stakeholders, including journalists and public interest groups, is essential to make rules about openness stick in the long run.

Executive pushback isn't the only challenge. The very structure of government is also being transformed, often in ways that undermine openness. One obvious example is the growing role of contractors in performing government functions. A 2006 study estimated that almost 8 million people work for federal government contractors – four times the size of the regular government workforce. As we've seen in Iraq, contractors now perform defense and intelligence tasks that we once thought belonged to government alone.

The problem? Most often, contractors aren't affected by FOI laws, so that internal documents about the use of money or power can't be accessed. Indeed, it may be difficult to obtain even the contract itself, which explains what contractors have promised to do, and how much they will be paid. Around the world, battles for access to government contracts are commonplace.

The structure of government is also being changed in more subtle ways. Since 9/11, we've all been reminded of the need to make difficult tradeoffs between security and openness. Less easily seen are the changes in the defense, intelligence, and policing sectors. Government agencies in different states (and different countries) are linking together more tightly, forming networks aimed at improving collective security. This is an admirable goal. But governments often agree to information-sharing agreements that allow inter-governmental confidentiality to trump FOI laws. OK as long as the network performs well – but bad news when the network fouls up, and journalists or citizens try to find out why.

Another subtle but important change: the growing role of international organizations. We live in a globalized economy, superintended by important institutions such as the World Trade Organization (which referees trade disputes), the International Monetary Fund (which monitors governments' economy policies), or the lesser-known ICANN (which rules the internet). Decisions made by organizations such as these affect the well-being of millions of citizens – but they are not required to comply with the transparency rules that we've imposed on national, state and local governments.

Are we making headway on governmental transparency? Frankly, it's too early to tell. The idea of transparency had gained ground. But it's not yet clear whether we will find ways of tailoring openness rules (like FOI laws) to fit new structures of governance. And we can expect political leaders to continue pushing back, especially as their capacity to control the outflow of government information is challenged more directly.

It's a long road ahead. But it's a road we must follow, if we want to protect the ideal of an open, vibrant democracy.

Alasdair Roberts is a professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. His 2006 book, "Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age," recently won awards from the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society for Public Administration. His Web site is

Recently I submitted an article about genetic engineering to the newspaper, but the paper balked at publishing it, (nicely) insisting that I insert a paragraph assuring readers that my article represented the result of extensive research or was my own opinion. The concern was that the readers might be too easily swayed by the definitive way I express myself.

Now I’ve been subjecting the Lake County public to my opinions for more than a decade and I’ve always considered readers to be intelligent enough to understand that anything in print should be subject to skepticism and rebuttal.

So what is it that has changed? Why is it that nationally, our publishers and editors seem consumed with vetting articles and information that is, in essence, unverifiable? Our society has been overrun with “experts” – the word parts “ex” and “pert” meaning “a drip under pressure.”

I will venture my opinion for your consideration. It is because we have come so far from being able to verify the glut of information we are inundated with through our own personal experiences and perceptions – “what we know.”

We are bombarded with information we are forced to blindly accept – opinions, conjectures, statistical studies, scientific studies, news reports, etc. etc. Science has strayed so far from pure unbiased studies that even Nobel Prize winners have complained that most of today’s science is agenda driven toward verifying pre-determined results.

Journalism has strayed even further from impartial and objective news, being purposely designed to lead us toward pre-determined conclusions. What we really know is easily defined as what we personally experience in our immediate relationships and environment. Beyond that, we are primarily forced to accept a myriad of perceptions, opinions, and ideas regarding history and current events with relatively little assurance in our facts or conclusions.

What may appear to be true today may be exposed as a hoax, misunderstanding or outright lie tomorrow. Science is constantly rearranging its facts and theories, and accepted history is often shown to be a concoction of fantasy, myth, and mass delusion. Some people insist that we must “trust” experts to gain a faithful perspective of the facts that surround us, but which of our sources do we consider innately trustworthy?

I know the Holocaust happened not because I read it in a book or saw a documentary but because of anecdotal evidence (despised by scientists and historians), from people who were there, and a father that was one of the first Americans to enter Dachau after the Germans fled.

To pretend that any of us have an undeniable grasp of what is happening far from our own reality is innately foolhardy and ultimately dangerous. Those that would insist otherwise are either a part of the manipulated masses or are themselves a part of the machine that attempts to keep us distracted from what we truly “know,” replacing our true knowledge with manufactured perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. They want us to believe, inundating us with a glut of seemingly unrelated information, entertainment and distraction, that our civilization is moving forward in an orderly, progressive fashion toward a wonderful and more perfectly controlled future.

To insure a free and responsible dialogue we should not be arbitrarily pretending any authority in the opinions presented in books, newspapers and media, yet neither should anyone offering an opinion be required to be an “expert” in what they speak of. That concept of simple acceptance of expertise is inherently more dangerous than the admission of ignorance. It is the responsibility of the public, and all readers, to vigilantly compare anything we see, hear, read, or watch, to our own reality our own experiences our own histories.

The advent of writing, hailed by some as the great preserver of knowledge and intellect is also the great preserver of myth, falsehood and deception. The abandonment of constantly vetted oral histories reflects a feeble attempt to assure ourselves that the written word is always faithful to the truth when we know otherwise. The attempts of humanity to assure ourselves that what we think we know, we know, and that what we believe is incontrovertible fact, is further proof of the immaturity of our species.

Take the thoughts and assertions of the progeny and prophets that have attempted to define and clarify, through writing, the attributes and intentions of our deities. Have the results of those attempts manifested themselves in a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane world? No, disagreements between men regarding the interpretation and veracity of those documents have been the underlying source of countless tragedies, wars, and strife worldwide since they were first composed. Indeed, our world aligns itself socially, politically and even racially within the separate and divisive influences of those documents.

Adult humans and their beliefs are like petulant children, demanding the pretense of knowing the unknowable, arrogantly pointing to a page to justify our competence and existence. But if we were to ask, of all that we are so vehemently concerned with today, what will be important and remain important in 10,000 years? We will not have an answer.

The earth and our natural world will prune, cull, and quantify our experience in ways we cannot predict, so that all these so-called matters of import may be rendered meaningless. For this civilization, the pretense of knowing appears to be more important than the actuality of being.

Readers aren’t stupid they do not need assurances to remind them of the fanciful nature of words the primary element of the universe is still mystery. To pretend otherwise is simple arrogance.


James BlueWolf lives in Lakeport.

A waterfall in the Snow Mountain Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Victoria Brandon.


After more than five years of dialog, persuasion, and inspired cajolerie, advocates of wilderness protection in northwestern California won a stupendous victory last fall with the passage of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, more commonly and intimately known as the Wilderness Bill.

This far-reaching measure designates 275,830 acres (roughly 431 square miles) of Rep. Mike Thompson’s Congressional District One as federal wilderness, thus giving these special places the most potent conservation protection available in the United States. Among the areas included are the Cedar Roughs near Lake Berryessa, the King Range, Trinity Alps and Yolla Bollys. Here in Lake County, 51,671 acres located primarily in the vicinity of Cache Creek and Snow Mountain have been given wilderness status.

Although Congressman Thompson’s deft handling and persistence deserve the primary credit for making this landmark legislation a reality, many other individuals also played an important role in the result.

It all started early in 2001, when California environmentalists began working with Sen. Barbara Boxer to identify specific tracts of federally-owned land throughout the state that merited Wilderness designation. If public support was strong enough, she promised to sponsor a California Wild Heritage act to protect these remarkable places.

As it happened, those same months also saw the formation of the Sierra Club Lake Group, which took on Wilderness Bill passage as its number one conservation priority, and began the campaign by asking Congressman Thompson to introduce parallel legislation in the House of Representatives.

The Lake Group wrote letters, met with local stakeholders, and worked hard to allay anxieties about any negative consequences wilderness designation might have for our community. Although the positive energy generated by these efforts was muted in January 2002, when the Lake County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 with Supervisor Ed Robey the lone minority voice to oppose any local extension of federal wilderness, momentum increased again after a tumultuous Town Hall meeting hosted by Congressman Thompson at Konocti Harbor Resort in April 2002.

By midsummer wilderness legislation was moving through both House and Senate, with lobbying efforts shifting to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose support was essential to passage.

In the meantime, Thompson, Robey and other advocates were working quietly in the background to win over as many different interest groups as possible. Letters and phone calls directed at all levels of government continued, as did petitions, informational tabling and lobbying trips to Washington. When the Board of Supervisors considered the bill again in April 2005 a show of hands in the packed chamber reflected an overwhelming affirmation for wilderness, and this time the Board voted the same way.

So did the United States Senate but opposition from (then) House Natural Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo prevented the bill from coming up for a floor vote in that branch of the legislature.

It was not until the summer of 2006 that Congressman Thompson, by acquiring the support of every county government in his district (the Del Norte Board of Supervisors being the last to concur) and by accommodating the needs of stakeholders ranging from mountain bikers to surf fishermen, managed to obtain Pombo’s grudging cooperation and break through the Resources Committee bottleneck.

At that point ultimate passage was assured even though the formalities required another few months for completion. President Bush signed the Wilderness Bill into law on October 17, 2006.

Many of the details surrounding these events, including a number of pithy anecdotes related to the lobbying effort, were recounted at a celebratory party hosted by Congressman Thompson and the California Wilderness Coalition at the Saintsbury Winery in Napa on Feb. 11.

Lake County environmentalists turned out in force, including Supervisors Ed Robey and Denise Rushing, equestrian Bill Knispel, Lake Group founders Peter Windrem, Steve Devoto, and Nina Marino, all three past and present group chairs, as well as other members of the executive committee, Land Trust and Redwood Audubon leaders, and assorted companions. The speeches were mostly brief and often funny, the hors d’oeuvres tempting, and the wines excellent, but now that the cheering is over it’s time to assess what this legislation means for this region.

First and foremost, more than 50,000 acres of pristine federal land within the borders of Lake County has been protected from roads, from logging, from mining, from off-road vehicles, from intrusive development of any sort forever.

Wilderness designation affirms that the worth of these places for wildlife habitat, for watershed replenishment, and for providing the transcendent beauty that nourishes the spirit takes precedence over any possibility of monetary exploitation. Human intrusion is by definition guaranteed to be temporary, soft-spoken and soft-footed: hikers and horsemen, canoers and kayakers, hunters and anglers are all welcome within wilderness borders, but not wheeled vehicles or any sort of motorized equipment.

Each designated Wilderness Area is special in its own way. Cache Creek offers particularly outstanding and accessible recreational opportunities to county residents and visitors. It is a land of deep canyons and steep ridges graced with oak woodlands, grasslands, chaparral, streamside forest, groves of gray pine, and other important low elevation habitats, with a chaparral ecosystem so pristine that according to the BLM, "There are no other stands of this size that are largely free of man's influence."

The region hosts the second-largest wintering bald eagle population in California, a large herd of tule elk, black bear, beaver, river otter, bobcat, mountain lion, prairie falcons and golden eagles, as well as a profuse display of spring wildflowers, a unique assemblage of rare plants, and nationally significant Native American cultural sites. Wilderness designation also accentuates the special status given to Cache Creek when it was named a State Wild and Scenic River in 2005.

Snow Mountain, which straddles the summit of both the Sacramento and Eel River watersheds, is skirted by deep canyons which compress ecological life zones to create a unique biological sky-island providing habitat to 122 species of wildlife, including confirmed populations of marten, goshawk and northern spotted owl. Areas newly added to the existing Snow Mountain Wilderness include 10 miles of the spectacular Eel River canyon along with ancient forests of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and incense cedar.

Areas of special value outside Lake County but still well within visiting range include the Cedar Roughs wilderness in Napa County west of Lake Berryessa, which shelters the world’s largest grove of the rare Sargent cypress, and the King Range on the Lost Coast, which is the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States.

The ecological effects of Wilderness designation also reverberate beyond the borders of the protected areas themselves. Provision of a nucleus of sacrosanct habitat allows many species of animals to establish healthy populations on wider ranges throughout surrounding swathes of public land and sometimes on private land too, where access restrictions are less stringent and may not exist at all.

In many of these locations on the margins of wilderness ecotourism facilities can be provided without impinging on the unsullied natural heritage of the wilderness areas themselves. Moreover, the presence of so much wild land of such high quality helps to establish Lake County’s image as a green refuge, a place to find values that have become rare and precious in this asphalt world.

The Wilderness Bill is now the law of the land, but that doesn’t mean that our work is over. Implementation measures include changing maps and posting signs, and sweatier restoration tasks such as demolishing old fence lines and controlling invasive alien plants work that will provide many rewarding opportunities for volunteers to play a meaningful role in managing and preserving the wild places that we cherish.

While rejoicing in our victory here in Congressional District One, we should not forget that many equally precious gems remain at risk elsewhere in California.

The sweeping California Wild Heritage Act that Senator Barbara Boxer first proposed in 2002 and reintroduced a just a few weeks ago would grant Wilderness status to more than 2.4 million acres of public lands, and give federal Wild and Scenic protection to more than 400 miles of free-flowing rivers an incredible legacy for future generations of Californians, and for the richly diverse plant and animal life of our state. Helping to make this dream a reality is a worthy objective for the next five years.

Victoria Brandon is chair of the Sierra Club Lake Group. She lives in Lower Lake.


A view of the Cache Creek Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Victoria Brandon.


Recently, one of the members of our TV8 Public Access Advisory Committee asked me if I thought getting the manager of another PEG Channel to talk to our group would be “inspiring.” I was amused. Although we don’t have a fancy setup (yet), it is “us” that would be an inspiration for public access advocates elsewhere.

Many of the well-funded citizen media organizations, such as Santa Rosa’s, are so bureaucratic that it is only theoretically possible for a citizen to get a program broadcast on their cable system in their lifetime.

About one-third of California’s cable TV contracts have no provision for public access. It is not mandated. Typically, local government franchisers have a public access provision buried somewhere in a densely worded cable contract. But they or the cable franchisees are either indifferent or hostile about making this bandwidth available to the public.

Up until a couple of years ago, the powers of darkness in Clearlake denied the public their contractual rights. Lakeport and the county never even bothered to insert a public access clause, but they got whatever Clearlake got since it was all the same broadcast system.

This has all changed. There are no barriers for Lake County residents to put their locally produced videos on TV8. You don’t believe me? Go ahead, take a video down to Clearlake City Hall and try it.

Jack Barker, a video production company owner, who is a fan of public access, pops in once a week as TV8’s manager to enter a stack of submissions for the scrolling TV8 bulletin board, programs residents’ videos, fixes equipment, orders new equipment with greater capability, and has opened up communication with the technogeeks at Yuba College and Konocti School District. They were a resource previously snubbed by the old guard.

Unlike most single channel organizations TV8 has its own Web site,, and message phone number, 994-8201, Ext. 109.

People in Lake County don’t know how good they’ve got it. Most of the broadcast time for programs on our lone public access channel remains unused. The openness of our cable access would be envied in San Jose where I am from.

San Jose is the 10th largest city and the third richest metropolitan area in the country. But they have only one channel on paper that is open to the public, and it’s dysfunctional. It is officially managed by their cable company, which does everything in its power to make sure few people know about the channel and even fewer use it. I had to make a research project out of hunting it down.

For people who are constantly whining about there not being anything to do in Lake County I might suggest video production for cable public access.

Today, video is cheap to shoot, editing is easy to learn, and you are living in one of the few places where no one is in a position to stop you.

Pick up your submission forms and drop off your completed production for broadcast at the County’s public access point, Clearlake City Hall.

Dante DeAmicis is a videographer and member of the TV8 Public Access Advisory Committee.




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