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Liberty Township Supervisor Walter Barlow

(8/2017) Secrecy in local government is a "serious blight" on our democratic process, as I discussed in an editorial last month. Municipal officials who are allowed to conduct business behind closed doors are accountable to no one; without public oversight or input, they can and do adopt whatever measures they want. The result – in my experience, including as a supervisor of Liberty Township, Adams County, Pennsylvania – is a culture that not only allows but invites abuse of power.

The abuse sometimes takes the form of pure nepotism. An official allows himself to construct a building without obtaining a permit that would be required of anyone else. He excuses friends from violations of ordinances, when others would be subject to fines and other penalties, if not criminal prosecution. He steers township business towards political contributors, and away from those do not or cannot offer such "support."

Officials abuse their power in a host of other ways, however. They can increase fees or taxes on the general populace while reducing those charges that affect their specific interests. They may refuse to publicize or take action against township employees who engage in misconduct – even potentially criminal activity – to avoid any appearance of negligence in their own management. They adopt ordinances and resolutions to give themselves greater authority and control over township affairs and meetings, at the expense of the citizens and their rights.

While these abuses (which I have seen and fought) may differ in form, they produce the same results: harm to the public, loss to the township, and – most fundamentally – damage to the very concept of democracy. An official who engages in abuse of this sort places himself above the law, and indeed above all other citizens, and grants himself the right to extend favors to anyone who pleases him and to deny them to others. This is despotism, plain and simple, and reflects the ultimate expression of disrespect towards the citizenry.

Combatting such abuse of power – and the culture that breeds it – requires that all of us band together, including at the ballot box, to demand that municipal business be conducted in the open and for the benefit of the public. That is why I originally ran for supervisor of my township, and it is why I am now running for reelection this November. Working together, we can ensure that our government and officials serve us, not themselves.

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