Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A good example of how to hold your neighbors' feet to the fire when they don't respect open-government laws

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Strong, well-argued editorials in rural community newspapers are the exception, not the rule. The typical editorial voice in a rural weekly is a column from the editor or publisher, not a metro-style editorial. The issues usually don't rose to the level of dressing down public officials, and in smaller communities there's often a reluctance to offend friends and neighbors.

But when an issue arises that goes to the heart of what community journalism is about, holding public officials and institutions accountable for their disrespect of open-government laws, a newspaper needs to speak up. Dennis George of The Lebanon Enterprise in Central Kentucky did that today with an editorial about the Marion County Board of Education's "cavalier approach" toward the state Open Meetings Act.

Dennis George
George laid the groundwork by first paying respect to the people he was about to criticize: "It is a challenging task to serve as a public official, and in many cases doing so in a community as close knit as ours." The county has about 19,000 people. George spoke form experience, noting how he voted for tax increases as a member of the Lebanon City Council. "If there is something I learned during that time, it is that people wanted you to be upfront and honest with them," he writes. "They might disagree with your thinking but respected you for taking the time to talk to them about an issue."

Under the first of three repeated "Trust and transparency" subheads, George writes, "Those are two traits that the public and the media should not only expect, but must demand of our public officials. We must be able to trust that they will not only make the proper decisions but be transparent in how they reached those decisions. As the Marion County school board goes through the process of selecting a new superintendent, a decision that will affect this community and its children for many years to come, some recent decisions make me wonder if we can rely on board members to be open in how they make that very important choice."

George laid out the secrecy that the board is following, speculation that it has already decided whom to hire, its failure to follow the open-meetings law's requirement for closed sessions, and the board chair's refusal to answer any more questions from him. "I had plenty of tough questions asked of me when I was on the Lebanon City Council," he writes. "Did I like them? Not always. Did I answer them? Yes, because it is what I signed up for."

He concludes, "The selection of a new school superintendent to too important to this community to hide behind closed doors during the process. If the board is so confident they are making the right choice, they should have no qualms about allowing the public to gauge the qualifications of the candidates."

No comments: