This past weekend I had the privilege to attend a Citizen Watchdog training event in San Diego. The event was hosted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Integrity…now there’s a word that seems to have long ago lost it’s place in public politics. The Franklin Center seeks to bring integrity in politics back into fashion by training up ordinary citizens to keep an eye on their local and state governments and hold them accountable for their actions.
A bevy of experienced journalists and activists relayed invaluable information in the battle to hold elected officials accountable to the citizenry. Mary Ellen Beatty is the Director of Citizen outreach at the Frankin Center. She says it’s all about the public’s right to know. “I think its easiest to hide waste, fraud, abuse and corruption at the local level because no one is watching. We don’t have reporters who cover local stories anymore…we want citizens to rise up and be the eyes and ears…taking advantage of public records and open meetings and empowering each other with information.”
Todd Shepherd of completecolorado.com showed attendees how to request public information and documents with relative ease. He admitted that he has broken many stories over the year simply by requesting the work emails of public officials, which is legal under the law in most states. Shepherd did caution that public information laws do vary from state to state and it was important to be informed as to what your rights are as a citizen requesting information.
The blogger panel included Jon Fleischman of FlashReport.org, a blog and news aggregate site aimed at California politics. Jenny Erikson of Cafe Mom also spoke about being a mom blogger and learning how to balance political activism with family life.
The keynote speaker was James O’Keefe, a name familiar to many conservatives. O’Keefe discussed the process behind his now infamous ACORN videos. He also encouraged participants to be bold in their pursuit of the truth and to not fear criticism from hostile parties, saying “This is the right time in history to actually take a role in events that are bigger than yourself. O’Keefe also confirmed that yes, that was indeed his grandmother’s chinchilla coat he used while posing as a pimp in his ACORN stings.
I spoke with Franklin Center Managing Editor Will Swaim about the importance of learning what Franklin staff like to refer to as “information activism”. He says it is the job of every citizen to watchful and vigilant. “Our government, our entire structure of government is predicated on citizen involvement and citizen awareness. It’s the reason that the only American industry that is enshrined in the Bill of Rights is the press, freedom of the press, the freedom of the public to inquire and assemble and what we’re trying to do is to give ordinary citizens the tools they need in order to hold their government accountable.”
Indeed, there was an overflow of valuable information in that vein. The Franklin Center is so committed to arming as many people as possible with these tools they have planned to hold more citizen watchdog trainings across the country through summer. Many people I spoke with after the event said they were leaving feeling empowered and positive. Veteran Greg Hallick said he was motivated to start working. “I’ve learned some messaging, techniques,processing, resources that I can go to for more information. I am going to be holding some feet to the fire.”
The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity holds these events at low cost to the public, in order to encourage maximum attendance. If you care to support their mission, log on to franklincenterhq.org to donate and/or find out more about how you can help.