I have been reminded frequently over the past few months of a scene from the movie “American President.”
The movie in which Michael Douglas is the impossibly handsome and dashing President of the United States and Annette Benning is a lobbyist for whom he falls in love and into bed with.
Not an altogether unknown set of circumstances in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C. I am sure.
Actually, I am positive, having spent some years covering state politics and the state courts system.
But I digress.
Toward the end of “American President” Douglas has a speech about democracy, about the system of government under which we live.
He said, and paraphrasing here since the script is not in front of me, that democracy was tough, that you had to want it bad because it was going to put up a fight.
In short, one may not want to see how the sausage is made but to be a citizen in this country there were times one simply had to face the ugly sites.
Tallahassee underscored the point for me.
Inside the artifice of marble and expensive wood paneling is a nest of folks who are way too removed from the constituents they are allegedly serving.
The extent to which lawmakers actually receive public input on a particular bill or measure under consideration is too often simply stepping outside the doors of the chamber and consulting the lobbyist whose firm actually authored the bill.
You want to speak? Forget it.
The number of bills that are filed each year having little to do with governance, such as establishing a state pie or designating such and such date as “Florida Honeydew Day” is astonishing.
So many were concerned about the timber felled by Michael: the Florida Legislature is way ahead on the number of dead trees sacrificed to idiocy.
But the devilish subtlety of the Capitol and the halls of the House and Senate is what is most striking about Tallahassee.
Within that gorgeous monument to statehood is a virtual maze of hallways and offices and elevators through which lawmakers travel, unmolested by those in the public.
Most of these areas one stumbles upon only after years of working there, but among lawmakers and their staff some secret handshake or code exists for moving about the Capitol.
Whatever it is, the public is hardly clued in.
On top of that, lawmakers have these lavish areas behind the rostrum in each chamber where they can go and kick back, eat, drink, and ignore any ruckus involving silly things like debate or actually considering the bill.
More often than not, lobbyists or party leadership has already instructed them on their vote, anyway.
Having watched the sausage being made for a handful of years, I had enough, but just imagine what Washington must be like.
However, my remembrances of “American President” these days are far more local.
As several issues have bubbled to the surface, a Highland View development, a sports park in Port St. Joe and a land use change in North Port St. Joe, citizens have expressed outrage they were not consulted.
They were unaware of what their elected officials were doing until well down the road.
This is a surprise?
Consider just a few items.
Public records are only public if one wishes to pay to have them redacted of “sensitive or personal information,” which often does not apply to the records sought, and pay to have them copied.
Dollar a page; pretty soon that comes out to real money.
And, only after identifying the proper person within the Clerk’s office who is in charge of that paperwork, in itself a task at times as friends of mine have found in recent days.
Want to speak in a public meeting?
At the county, one must first fill out a form with personal data and subject on which you wish to speak, then at the end your name might be called.
And if up to speak, and this is city or county, if what you are saying is not what anyone on the dais wants to hear: get the subject covered in three minutes.
Up at the rostrum to praise the actions of any or these boards: spend the day, have a snack.
And, let us consider all the material that is presented to commissioners “during” the meeting, material that is not yet public (head to the Clerk afterward and open your wallet) and has not been seen before that minute.
And may or may not be described in any detail.
Those are simply symptoms of a system that is not built for the public’s input, as if the public’s sole role is in the voting booth and after that, well, unless you have something positive to say, keep to yourself.
Let’s face it, this government DNA was all but established from the outset when the Founding Fathers drafted a Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution and did it all largely out of sight from the public.
Nevertheless, recent months have carried reminders of just how difficult this thing called democracy is, how frustrating it can be for the public which government is established to assist.
Michael Douglas may have been too handsome to be President, but dadgum if he didn’t nail what everyday folks are up against when dealing with their government.
“You have to want it bad.”
No matter how upside down that may be to any of us who studied Civics in high school.