Within hours of Wednesday’s edition hitting the streets, two national journalism bloggers and one First Amendment blogger had contacted The Times Argus looking for additional information about the digital note-passing that had been done by elected officials in Montpelier.
Meanwhile, letters to the editor arrived praising the newspaper for taking the officials to task. One city councilor, however, wrote a snarky letter that chided the newspaper for publishing the content of the emails and text messages exchanged during the Sept. 26 City Council meeting. He argued that the content, of which he was an author, was not worthy of the embarrassment that it caused; he characterized the newspaper’s action as a tactic to sell papers.
Too bad. That’s what watchdogs do. And the issue certainly got the attention of other public officials across Vermont, as well as First Amendment advocates — not just here but among others concerned with how “shadow governments” sometimes form in our fast-moving digital age. The fact that some of the very members of the Montpelier City Council who had been caught in the Freedom of Information Act request acknowledged that maybe there ought to be a policy in place against texting and emailing during public meetings suggests the issue has merit right here, right now.
Likewise, for Secretary of State Jim Condos, a proponent of government transparency and an advocate for educating public officials about the state’s open meeting laws, to suggest that Montpelier’s elected officials had acted with certain disregard for the public process also serves as an indictment that the behavior needs to be put away before meetings are gaveled into order.
Civic leaders take an oath to serve constituents to the best of their ability. It would be ridiculous to argue that “passing notes” and having “digital discussions” is what voters had in mind when they expected meaningful debate on issues of community importance. Voters cast votes for officials who will take their elected roles seriously, will strive for tangible, exhaustive debate, and won’t stoop to mockery and middle school shenanigans to pass the time.
There have been several instances in communities across central Vermont over the last year when the rules of public service have been ignored, bent or modified to suit officials who felt they needed a form of political cover. There have been questions about misuse of executive sessions, conflicts of interest, unwarned meetings, as well as questions about the public’s access to closed investigations or negotiations. All of them have been reported in the media.
Ironically, there are public officials in those cases who agree that government transparency is essential for civics to work well in our communities. Yet many of those same individuals, when tweaked on acting outside the principles of the open meetings law, were quick to shoot the messenger, claim that agendas had been driven, and even threaten to further deny access unless the media backed off.
Being an elected official, much like being a journalist, takes courage. It means constantly being judged in the public’s eye. And, yes, expectations are very high to produce results. Discussions and decisions among elected officials can’t be made away from the opinions of the public. Anything less is cowardice and manipulation, and does actually show a lack of regard for the process that we all strive to preserve and protect. It is simple judgment.
If standing up for the rights of voters and demanding that our public officials act responsibly and properly when serving us is considered a method by which we sell more newspapers, we would say, indeed. That is why we do what we do: Keep the process honest and aboveboard. It is news.
If public officials don’t want to be called out or given a public lecture on civics, then they should start acting the role.
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