The more a government seeks refuge in secrecy, the less credibility it has with the people it serves. The longer a government refuses to answer basic questions about public business, the more suspicious taxpayers become.
We first published those exact words last year, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management refused to answer important questions about the April 2014 blowup at the Bundy ranch in Bunkerville. The BLM, in attempting to end a decades-long grazing dispute with rancher Cliven Bundy, dispatched an armed force and air support across northern Clark County to round up his cattle. The overdone, militarized response to a civil dispute rallied Mr. Bundy’s rangeland allies and anti-government types, creating a confrontation that was a single trigger pull from becoming a bloodbath. The BLM pulled back, and the public demanded answers.
How much money was wasted on the aborted roundup? How was it planned? To what degree were local officials consulted? Were other approaches considered? And who signed off on the debacle?
No answers were provided. The Review-Journal submitted multiple public records requests to the BLM under the Freedom of Information Act, but the agency has stalled and stonewalled the newspaper.
The lack of transparency and accountability within the BLM is a perfect reminder of why the press and open government advocates observe Sunshine Week, which runs through Saturday. Sunshine Week champions the public’s right to access government business and information. For a government to have any credibility and integrity, its budgets, policies and actions must be deliberated and approved in the open, and all of its records — contracts, memos, emails, payments, salaries and more — must be open to public inspection. If we can’t find out what governments are doing, we invite corruption and waste.
The Bundy family’s public lands conflict is a policy matter of vital public interest. The records that document how this roundup came together and fell apart will tell taxpayers a lot about the administration of the BLM, which continues to anger ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts and local elected officials with its arbitrary decisions and its arrogant approach to land management. About 85 percent of Nevada is controlled by the federal government. The BLM considers its acreage Washington property, not public property.
Here we are, almost one year after the confrontation that led national news broadcasts, and still the public has no answers from the BLM. The Review-Journal’s initial records requests were rejected because BLM said they were too “broad and general.” A more specific request was submitted, seeking email messages between key officials from April 1 to 13, the period covering the Bundy ranch standoff. Nothing. In September, a new, consolidated, crystal-clear request was submitted at the urging of a BLM official. We’re still waiting for the records — and the answers.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the BLM in federal court last year after its requests for records related to the Bundy ranch confrontation and threats against BLM employees were denied. What is the BLM trying to hide?
The agency cannot be allowed to avoid public scrutiny. No agency can be allowed to avoid public scrutiny. Let the sun shine in.