Lost in history’s thinned pulp is Boss Tweed, but his essence endures.
Born April 3, 1823, in Lower Manhattan, at a time when that place swarmed not with wealth but with iron men armed with clubs and clenched fists, William Magear Tweed apprenticed as a chairmaker and became known for his skills fighting as a teen on the city’s muddied streets. He joined a local fire company famed for clashes with other companies as they raced to one blaze after the next, and his reputation grew.
By 1852, he’d won election as an alderman of the Seventh Ward at age 29. Within a decade, he’d seized control of city finances and Tammany Hall, also known as the Society of St. Tammany, the political organization that dominated power in New York with Tweed ruling by corruptive force. Every city deal required a kickback to Tweed and his ring. By the 1870s, the newspapers were calling him “Boss.”
“He controlled judges, mayors, governors and newspapers,” wrote biographer Kenneth Ackerman. “Tweed ... defined a grim reality of American politics, perfecting forms of graft and voting-box abuse mimicked by political bosses for the next century, but never on so grand a scale.”
Newspapers, damn them, turned on him eventually, unearthing crooked finances in city bank accounts with The New York Times reporting on its front page in July 1871 what historian Robert McNamara described as “the details of Tweed’s thievery.” His reign ended with a prison sentence. He died in 1878.
Tweed lives, if not in outright thievery, assuredly in the murky milieu in which it is possible.
Essential is a means of concealment, a means by which acts can be shielded from public view. Darkness is ideal. A blind public is even better. The combination of these leaves the people open to plunder.
A danger lurks when a populace declines or refuses to demand better from those who seek the public’s trust. Elected officials and those whom they appoint to lead in public positions accorded this trust have a sacred duty to uphold it.
That requires operating in the open, before the eyes of the public, not only to the fullest extent under the law but to the greatest extent possible. The West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act recognizes as much in its preamble:
“The Legislature hereby finds and declares that public agencies in this state exist for the singular purpose of representing citizens of this state in governmental affairs, and it is, therefore, in the best interests of the people of this state for the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly, with only a few clearly defined exceptions. The Legislature hereby further finds and declares that the citizens of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the governmental agencies that serve them. The people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them.”
Both the Open Governmental Proceedings Act and the state Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, carry with them the presumption of openness, common in open meetings and public records laws across the country and plainly stated in FOIA: “There is a presumption of public accessibility … .”
The Charleston Gazette- Mail is waging an open government fight in the courts with West Virginia University over these very ideas, once considered sacrosanct. Apart from the issues in that case, in which WVU seeks to flip the law on its head, politicians in local government and the Legislature are secretly communicating in ostensibly open settings, in council and commission meetings using electronic devices and apps that conceal deliberations from public view.
Reporting by The Herald-Dispatch’s McKenna Horsley led to the Huntington City Council’s commendable resolution to prohibit the use of electronic communications devices during meetings. But the activity is widespread elsewhere and not contemplated in open meetings law that predates the technology.
Others, including the Legislature, should follow Huntington’s lead and authorize legislation prohibiting the practice. In WVU’s case, the school’s governing board should follow the law rather than seek to subvert it. Otherwise, the message counters that of this state’s open government law, putting public servants in the position of deciding what is good for the people to know. That is the world into which Boss Tweed cast his constituents.
It is up to the people to reject that message. Only the light of transparency can chase the darkness of corruption.