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EDITORIAL: The right to know comes home at Montpelier

"All men having power ought to be mistrusted to a certain degree."
James Madison at the Constitutional Convention, July 11, 1787


Just as the Times-Mirror is distributed to homes and sites throughout Loudoun County on Thursday, the newspaper’s editor will be speaking at James Madison’s home in Orange County on an enduring idea about newspapers and government. Executive Editor Dale Peskin joins a group of business leaders and attorneys at Montpelier for a discussion about the public’s right to know. The discussion is being conducted by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

As a monument to James Madison, our fourth president and father of our Constitution, Montpelier engages citizens with the legacy of Madison’s most powerful idea: government by the people.

Madison turned government on its head. He and his peers envisioned a new nation with a limited power that served the people equally. But it was Madison who created the framework for making it work. The social contract described by the Declaration of Independence, in which the people hold the government accountable and the law applies to all citizens equally, was a lofty goal until the Constitution prescribed a system of government that could be kept in check on all fronts.

With the core ideas of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights, Madison set the principles for the people’s right to know. His first and best idea is the First Amendment. Madison’s framework for the American Experiment is still important today.

The topic at Montpelier is this: the confidentiality of business information. The discussion considers whether private enterprises conducting business with governments are entitled to withhold information from the public.

We understand this topic well in Loudoun County, where developers regularly tease planners, the county’s economic marketers and our elected officials with elaborate schemes, dreams and high-priced projects. Developers influence decisions with advocates they pay to advise decision makers. They make strategic campaign contributions. County supervisors typically comply with requests to negotiate with them behind closed doors, outside the scrutiny of the public or the press.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government is particularly interested in discussing the Times-Mirror’s coverage of AT&T’s project on Short Hill Mountain. Earlier this year, the newspaper disclosed the construction of communications facilities for the federal government on top of Short Hill, and later, inside the mountain.

Residents in the valley below still want to know what’s going on. Evidence obtained by the Times-Mirror suggests that a secret, communications relay station is being constructed inside the mountain, once a secure federal bunker built to withstand a nuclear attack. But AT&T isn’t saying much, and county officials are holding whatever knowledge they have close to the vest. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request were redacted to obscure clarifying details of the project.

Should AT&T have to disclose information about the project to the public?

Should county officials disclose dealings with AT&T and the federal government about the project?

Does the Times-Mirror have an obligation to ferret out the facts and inform citizens of the county?

The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” Because James Madison said so.

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