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Our View: Agencies need public accountability

Posted: June 29, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 29, 2014 2:00 a.m.

It’s pretty basic. Public governmental agencies in this country should be accountable to the public they serve. They are funded by taxpayer money, and the bureaucrats who staff these agencies should consider taxpayers their bosses.

These basic fundamentals often become skewed when the governmental agencies become so big, so insular and so bureaucratic that they lose sight of their No. 1 job: to serve the public and provide the public and the media information about their activities without any strings attached.

Recent behavior by bureaucrats at the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, illustrates government at its worst and frankly sheds light on what can happen when bureaucracy becomes extreme.

Last year, parts of our region were devastated by the Powerhouse Fire, a stubborn blaze that destroyed 53 homes and charred more than 30,000 acres.

On Monday, Forest Service officials released a brief statement saying the department’s investigation determined “electrical power lines creating a competent ignition source” were the cause of the fire.

When pressed by news reporters, Forest Service bureaucrats refused to give more specifics and said the reporters would have to file Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more.

These requests are usually required only for old or obscure information that is sought during investigative reporting.

It takes days to get information under this process.

We find it odd at best and downright obfuscation at worst that the U.S. Forest Service would send out a press release offering vague, sketchy and downright uninformative language (certainly those whose homes were burned down could attest to the competence of the ignition source without the Forest Service’s investigation) and would then force the media and the public to negotiate time-consuming hurdles to obtain a report that was just released.

Those devastated by the fire deserve to know its cause. There is no indication that any of the information in the report is “top secret.”

We understand that the U.S. Forest Service may not be flush with staff, but the main job of their spokespeople hired to inform the media and the public is to provide information to the media and the public in a timely manner.

Telling the media to file FOIA requests is inefficient and costly as it adds an extra layer to the process of providing public information.

Situations such as this illustrate why many people feel they can’t trust their government or the people in it.

Bureaucrats just don’t get it. They don’t understand that they are public servants — no matter what their title is or how important a position they hold.

We urge our elected officials in the federal government, those who provide oversight to agencies, to take note of this lack of accountability and put a stop to it.



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