Imagine our disbelief if a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch asked U.S. Representative Randy Forbes for comments on the debt ceiling crisis, only to be told that Mr. Forbes couldn't say anything until he talked to Rep. John Boehner first.
Imagine our outrage if someone from the Midlothian Exchange asked Virginia Sen. John Watkins for his opinion on insurance coverage for autism therapy, only to be told that Mr. Watkins couldn't comment until he'd run it by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
You see, Boehner is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, while Bolling presides over the state Senate. And while both men, as chairs of their respective bodies, help shape the debate and keep it moving, neither they nor the press nor the public would ever assume or accept that individual members of the U.S. House or the state Senate would have to forego commenting on matters of vital public interest before first alerting their leaders to the inquiry.
And yet, that is essentially the policy in place for the Chesterfield County school board right now. The policy, adopted in June, says that only the superintendent "will communicate the position of the board on controversial issues," and that the school board chair will "represent the boards' [sic] positions on inquires [sic] from all media." What's more, the policy also says that all media inquiries should first be sent to the community relations department "in order to insure that everyone has the most updated information."
The policy also sets out three measures -- conversation, letter of reprimand, public censure -- for handling a board member's violation of the board's policy.
Putting those policies together, it means the four school board members who are not the chair should not be talking to the press or the public at all on "controversial issues," and only in coordination with the chair and the communications department in other cases. Failure to follow the protocol can result in intra-board discipline.
Board member Patricia Carpenter told the Times-Dispatch that the policy was meant to assist media, not restrict access. But guess what? It does restrict access. Not necessarily in a Freedom of Information Act kind of way -- FOIA does not say anything about whether and how a public employee speaks to the press -- but in a way that places elected officials out of the reach of the very people who voted them into office.
In keeping track of various stories around the Commonwealth affecting transparency in government, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government has noticed a disturbing trend out there among local government and school boards that seems to equate leadership with unanimity. It's a notion that views debate and dissent among members as detriments to the democratic process rather than essentials.
The Chesterfield policy manual, for instance, discourages "surprises" at board meetings and states that "board meetings are for decision-making, action, and votes, not endless discussion." The policy also states a preference for avoiding long board meetings and reminds members to make their points in as few words as possible.
You'll get no argument from me that some meetings last as long and can be as painful to sit through as an "American Idol" contestant's rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." And goodness knows I've sat through many a meeting where speakers drone on and the debate is redundant.
But, as messy and sometimes distasteful as long meetings and overwrought debate can be -- as this Summer of Debt Crisis has definitively proven to us all -- it is absolutely critical to our system of government. It is as important for us as citizens to read, hear and see our elected officials' views on issues after they are in office as it is when they are running for office.
But when policies discourage debate at meetings and also circumscribes media contact, then the public is left with little opportunity to understand any one member's position. That makes it incredibly difficult for the public, who gets much of its information from attending meetings and reading/watching local news, to petition the board for a redress of its grievances.
Who stands for what? Who agrees with this policy and who doesn't? Which member can I express my opinion to in hopes that he/she will consider a new option?
Elected officials have not only a duty to speak out, they have a First Amendment right to. Policies and preferences for sanitized meetings or point-person-only communications give a patina of positive public relations, but it's really quite the opposite. Relations with the public are tarnished when individual members are discouraged from speaking freely.